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Weave Got This 

Bad Hair turns the loss of Black identity into satisfying body horror.

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What is lost when people assimilate? It's a thorny question, one that's perhaps as contentious as it has ever been in an America where the very idea of who gets to call themselves "American" is a socio-political battleground. Those of us who grew up with the idealized notion of the United States as a melting pot never got to hear the part of the conversation about whose culture is the pot, into which everyone else's is expected to melt.

Dear White People creator Justin Simien's Bad Hair takes the kind of allegorical horror-comedy that Jordan Peele is turning into a personal brand, and applies it to the way Black image and identity is tied to the ideals of European-ness. At the same time, Simien shows a facility with making a purely satisfying genre film that doesn't lose anything by having a brain in its head.

Set in 1989, Bad Hair focuses on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), a young woman trying to work her way up the career ladder at a BET-style cable network called Culture. In the midst of a shift in leadership at the company—with Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek) becoming the new CEO and replacing Anna's mentor with ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams)—Anna feels the pressure to adapt to a new mainstream-leaning emphasis. That means doing something about the naturally-kinky hair that a childhood trauma has led her to avoid changing, leading her to an upscale salon where the weaves they give customers change their lives ... and end others.

It's no spoiler, given the entire premise of the movie, that Anna's new 'do develops a thirst for blood, beginning with deserving victims like Anna's rapist landlord. Simien isn't afraid of getting playful with his concept, as Anna's dawning awareness that she's got some funky follicles comes after they sop up the blood left behind by a rare hamburger, or apply themselves to the first day of Anna's period. Simien's directing choices work well for the pure scares as well, but it's generally more interesting when he decides to have fun with the era in which the story is set, whether that's the style of the music videos by Black artists that the station plays, or Madison's comment that entire network exists basically as a way for the parent MTV-esque network to avoid a lawsuit.

That edgy recognition of cultural divisions works as Bad Hair digs into its mythology, helpfully supplied by Anna's folklore scholar uncle (Blair Underwood). The folk tale of the "Moss Hair Girl" becomes not just the kind of exposition every supernatural horror story has to dish out at some point, but part of a bigger picture about how legends and stories are erased by colonizing and dominating cultures. Anna's willingness to endure physical pain to have straight hair—and the sequence in which her stylist (Laverne Cox) applies the weave plays out as a kind of torture—becomes a representation of erasing Blackness so that it's not as "in your face" to white people who might have a problem with it. The co-workers who want the network to remain focused on Black women are doomed to be left behind by a shift to something that will get ratings from white folks, too.

Some of the mythology has been pared down since the 13-minutes-longer version that premiered at Sundance in January, resulting in a narrative that's considerably more streamlined for Halloween horror viewing enjoyment. That doesn't mean Simien shies away from his social satire, in ways that are both specific to the late-1980s pop-culture absorption of Black music into the mainstream, and more generally applicable to the way Black stories are still treated as a niche that only seem economically viable if they don't scare off white people. It's a sly and effective joke that part of the rebranding at Anna's network involves changing the name from Culture (representing something rich and deep) to Cult (representing something based on ignorance and blind following). Bad Hair finds the scares and the lessons in what happens when distinctive cultural identity gets melted away in an attempt simply to fit in.

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