Bad Hair initially plays like three separate movies. On further reflection, it accomplishes a clever bit of meta-narrative, refracting the fluidity of the hair at its center: each half hour, the film shifts its form, keeping all the same parts but redefining itself into something that looks completely different on the surface. From satire-lite to cutting lampoon of corporate culture and identity to absurdist horror-comedy, Justin Simien exhibits a deft touch and visual flair, if not a seamless transition in tone and tenor throughout. It lags and drags in spots, but Bad Hair is a nonetheless exciting step in the early career of the already-accomplished writer-director of Dear White People.
In its opening salvo, Bad Hair invests more in recreating a specific time and place (a Black culture magazine - Culture - in the late 80s) than in filling that space with multi-dimensional characters. The satire-to-come will rely on these archetypes, but early in the film they operate as a paper-thin barrier preventing Simien from fully realizing his world and reeling in his audience. The production design, costumes, and videos-within-the-movie combine to create a unique mise-en-scène, but Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the characters are thinly drawn.
Even in his set-up, Simien offers hints at the horror to come. In an early scene where Anna returns to her Uncle and Aunt’s home - two academics that raised her and her cousin - Simien uses slow, ominous camera movements and warped close-ups to transform a simple scolding from awkward to terrifying. And as Anna gets a weave and Bad Hair transitions into a scathing critique of corporate culture, Simien wisely flips the script. While his camera shows nothing but love for Anna’s hair, he uses it to make us feel the leers coming from her coworkers. We’ve seen over and over when the white establishment stares at and touches Black hair - this time it’s the reverse. Anna’s Black colleagues and friends are mostly dismayed at what they see as her adapting to the uniformity that her corporate overlords demand.
It’s at this point that Simien’s film becomes a two-hander, simultaneously eviscerating the convenient corporate appropriation of Black identity while interrogating the difficulties of maintaining ourselves while working in a job defined by culture. When our work is nearly synonymous with who we are, professional drive and personal integrity can become mutually exclusive, and Anna’s dilemma as she rises through the ranks at the re-named Cult is genuinely sympathetic. Once again, rather than thrusting us immediately into the pure chaos of genre fare, Simien eases his audience into the pool. Beginning with Anna’s new do, Bad Hair dabbles in body horror, supplementing it with the creeping terror of existing as an ambitious Black woman.
I won’t ruin the delightful anarchy of Bad Hair’s final 30 minutes. But where it succeeds in repeatedly redefining itself, Simien’s satire-comedy-horror finds itself bogged down by the weight of each new skin that it never completely sheds. It adds up to a messy-complicated final third, as opposed to a messy-fun one, and leaves us with our minds jumbled in confusion rather than with captivated shock. The dialogue is sometimes painfully on-the-nose (“You ever have a dream?...especially when everyone tells you you don't deserve it?”), and other than the swoon-worthy Laverne Cox, the cameos seem designed to distract from rather than dovetail with the film’s narrative. But despite its pitfalls, Bad Hair is in turns trenchant and terrifying - both trick and treat, for the Halloween crowd - and yet another signal of the emergence of a major filmmaker.