1980s high-top fades and asymmetrical bobs are just part of the horror of ‘Bad Hair’
Two years ago, after reading the script for her next movie project set in 1989 Los Angeles, Nikki Wright began combing through old Black fashion magazines, looked at cosmetics ads and watched music videos from the New Jack Swing era on repeat. She thought about how to replicate the narrow beauty standards African American women felt pressured to live up to at the time, a major theme of the movie. None of this prep was unusual for the veteran hairstylist.
But this wasn’t just any movie. It was Wright’s most high-profile gig to date: bringing a killer weave to life in “Bad Hair,” the high-minded, low-budget horror-comedy on Hulu. Every bit of cultural minutiae had to be correct, even when that meant re-creating old-fashioned hair techniques that, it turned out, were flawed.
“I wanted you to feel like you were really in the time period,” said writer-director Justin Simien, whose new movie transforms the experience of getting your first weave into a creepy allegory of cultural assimilation. “I didn’t want the film to feel like ‘2020 in 1989 drag.’”
‘Dear White People’ creator Justin Simien returns to Sundance with a New Jack Swing in the retro-horror satire ‘Bad Hair.’
His commitment to authenticity meant that the foundation for the hair weaves were done the old-school way, by braiding the hair in a ring-shaped pattern atop the client’s head (a big no-no nowadays), before sewing in the tracks, as Laverne Cox’s luxury stylist does in the movie. “It’s funny, looking back,” Wright said. “We were writing the book on that style and in doing it we realized braiding the hair in a circle wasn’t what we should’ve been doing. When the hair grows out, it looks like a lampshade.”
In “Bad Hair,” which sparked a bidding war after premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, long silky strands of hair creep out of place in meetings, and whole swaths of it slither around corners, climb walls and sprout out of heads like demonic tendrils to snatch and slay human victims, then feed on their blood. The weaves, it turns out, are evil and take over the women wearing them, like Anna (Elle Lorraine), a meek executive assistant at the Black music TV network Cult.
Wright, who headed the production’s hair department, envisioned Anna as an average Compton girl who has what it takes to realize her dream of becoming an on-air host, apart from the right look. Early in the movie, she wears her natural hair in a modern curly style, pulled back in an Afro puff. The problem is that rather basic style just won’t cut it anymore at Cult, whose new boss (Vanessa Williams) wears her hair in a deluxe weave and is hungry for content that will cater to a “whiter — er, wider — demographic.” She suggests Anna get with the program.
“It was believed that European features were the key to success and made you acceptable in the workplace,” said Kellie Robinson, the film’s makeup head. It was important to Robinson that the cosmetics in the movie reflected the choices women of color had in the ’80s, when they were confined to three foundations: light, medium or dark. “Clearly, we have a blend of many colors and undertones,” said Robinson, who applied her base colors and foundation on the cast so that they wouldn’t match. She added: “The colors were off in the ’80s.”
After getting her cosmetology license, Wright worked at several salons before opening one of her own. Celebrity clients such as Queen Latifah came next and, in 2005, her first television credit: “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” with R&B singer Ashanti. That show got her into the hair and makeup union, Local 706, which gave her a taste of the entertainment industry.
“I remember working on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ they would only call me when they had Black people on the show,” she said. “They didn’t hire me as staff. It was just, ‘Oh, Chris Brown and his dancers are coming. Can you work?’ When they did that a couple times, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m good. I’m not available.’” The thought still rankles. “We know how to do everything, every type of hair.”
Like other Hollywood guilds, Local 706 has been working to increase the number of racial minorities among its ranks. It does not track information on gender, age, race or ethnicity, but the union has an estimated 1,700 hairstylists on its film and television roster, roughly half of whom list “textured hair” as a skill.
One of the fun parts of working on a movie like “Bad Hair,” whose hair and makeup team was 100% people of color, Wright said, was re-creating many of the signature haircuts from her youth. The classic high-top fade worn by Anna’s narcissistic boo, Julius (Jay Pharoah), was inspired by Bobby Brown. The asymmetrical bob that her best friend, Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe), rocks late in the movie is a wink at Salt-N-Pepa. For Kelly Rowland, who plays a wholesome pop-diva-next-door, they went full Janet Jackson, down to her layered midlength locks.
Most of the styles were actually human-hair wigs, either made specifically for the movie or rented. For Lorraine’s character, alone, they made close to half a dozen wigs of varying lengths.
Because the murderous weaves in “Bad Hair” grow in length after each feeding, the hair and makeup department had to work closely together to achieve the desired physical transformations, which required a subtle touch. “After Anna gets her first sew-in weave, you see her facial features start to change [as she feels more attractive and confident], so I gave her face structure more contour, to enhance her naturally beautiful cheekbones and nose,” Robinson said. “The longer her hair got, the straighter I made Anna’s features.”
For the film’s hair effects, the director turned to Tony Gardner of the San Gabriel Valley VFX studio Alterian Inc. Gardner said Simien, who also made 2014’s “Dear White People,” wanted to use practical effects as much as possible, and for it to feel like the process and execution of them actually came out of the ’80s. Long lengths of acrylic hair were used in tandem with Wright’s handmade wigs.
“It was nice to have Nikki there early on to help us get the texture, density and sheen of the hair just right,” Gardner said. “We actually purchased the hair fiber on 50-foot rolls so that we had the ability to pull off whatever Justin came up with and also had the resources to be able to do multiple takes of the scenes.”
Air cannons and blowers were used to move the hair around in scenes and electrical charges planted in walls around the set to get the hair to move toward it. “The day we shot the weave attacking everyone in the salon was a fun day,” Gardner said. The production created a fiberglass skullcap for the actress to wear that had animatronic appendages mounted to the top of it. “They did things I’ve never seen before,” Wright said.
If “Bad Hair” is set in the past, “Black Panther” might point to the future. Some see the 2018 superhero film about the technologically advanced fictional African nation of Wakanda as a blockbuster moment for African American hair. The movie, which Wright worked on, featured a large cast of characters with sculpted natural coifs in a variety of styles — queenly and side-swept locks, detailed braid work, Bantu knots, accessorized bald scalps — that deserved their very own movie credits. “We did a lot of research on newer styles for ‘Black Panther’ and looked at innovative ways to express yourself through your hair,” she said.
One thing’s for certain: Hair has long been tangled up in cultural identity and politics, and it’s evolving 24/7. “We can do so much with Black hair,” Wright said. “It’s not just sitting on your head. It’s a crown, however you decide to wear it.”
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