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Justin Simien's 'Bad Hair' takes on horrors of double standards

Justin Simien's 'Bad Hair' takes on horrors of double standards
Director and writer Justin Simien spoke with UPI at Sundance about his new film "Bad Hair." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Dear White People creator Justin Simien returned to Sundance with a horror movie about a killer hair weave, titled Bad Hair.

Simien said the high-concept Bad Hair has just as much to say about race as his debut film and the Netflix series it inspired.

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"My favorite psycho-horror-thrillers are always about the society and the times we live in," Simien told UPI at the festival. "My favorite one is Body Snatchers '76. In that movie, they're taking guru culture to task. Rosemary's Baby is about a woman at her most vulnerable place being taken advantage of by all these men who run the process of giving birth."

In Bad Hair, Anna (Elle Lorraine) works at a black music video station in 1989. Zora (Vanessa Williams) takes over the station and Anna has a chance at a promotion. To look more like an executive, Anna gets an exotic Indian hair weave that has a taste for blood.

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Hair remains an issue for African-American women at work 30 years after 1989. Simien said.

"It's written into codes of conduct in places of work that your hair has to be professional," Simien said. "What's considered unprofessional is a list of people's natural hairstyles."

Anna's natural hair is curly, but even other African-American women at the station advise her to change it to look more professional to Zora.

"I think the derogatory way of referring to her hair is 'nappy,'" Simien said. "It's not relaxed. It's not straight. It's kind of in these balls which I feel like to our eyes is beautiful."

Anna's white counterparts are allowed to have curly hair at work. Simien said there is a double standard.

"Different rules apply to black women," Simien said. "Some of them are cultural and that culture can be race culture. It can be music culture. It can be entertainment culture. It can be workplace culture. I think black women often get the short end of that stick."

Simien chose 1989 for the era of Bad Hair because there was an iconic style for African-American hair. He cited celebrities like Janet Jackson, Robin Givens and Vanessa Williams who had straight hair weaves like Anna gets in Bad Hair.

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"Specifically in Hollywood spaces or image-driven spaces like MTV or BET, I think a lot of women felt and feel looked down upon," Simien said. "When you see her get that kind of circular bun around her head, that's all very period accurate as to how weaves were done back then."

The issue of natural hair in the workplace is still relevant in 2020, Simien said. He hopes the metaphor of a horror movie can shine a light on the issue like his favorite horror movies did in their times.

"Right now there's a natural hair movement that's happening," Simien said. "Black women in particular are given less options of what they can show up as. Usually whatever you are is not one of the options. Whatever that might be."

After Sundance, Simien will go back into the writers room for Dear White People's fourth and final season. His original film was a satire that dealt with the aftermath of a blackface party on a college campus. The series followed those students beyond the blackface party dealing with more social issues on campus.

Simien said four seasons felt like the right number for the Netflix series.

"We don't follow them year by year but it's four years of college," Simien said.

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Before Dear White People became a hit, Simien had prepared for a shorter run, or perhaps longer had Netflix demanded it. Ultimately, he and the streaming service agreed.

"I was always prepared either way, if we got canceled, if we got extended, if we got extended indefinitely, if we got extended for one more season," Simien said. "I always had to kind of run a scenario in my head. When we got to the fourth season, it just felt right to end it there."

Dear White People is named after the college radio show Samantha White (Tessa Thompson in the film, Logan Browning on the show) hosted, on which she challenged the fraternity that encouraged blackface. The series has seen campus security guards commit police violence and an alt-right group launch their own radio show to counter Samantha's.

After Dear White People ends, Simien expects to continue using his films and television shows to address social issues through entertainment.

"I'll probably be speaking on that subject in some form or another," Simien said. "I think Bad Hair touches on identity and self, just in a different way."

When Samantha and her classmates graduate, however, their story will reach its logical conclusion.

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"Definitely with these characters, I think I will have exhausted what I feel like I need to say right now about them," Simien said. "Never say never."

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