What had happened at the Oscars was, simply, hair

collage of four women in elegant gowns
(Photo illustration by Jessica de Jesus / Los Angeles Times; Photos by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Momodu Mansaray / Getty Images)

The beauty of hair is that it is always a statement. Or, quite often, multiple statements braided together, patted down, picked out, flipped up, shaved off and twisted in myriad ways for narrative effect. It’s not just cosmetic; presentation is not complete without texture. There’s always history to take into account given that hair is both natural and, sometimes, structured as artifice, ready to be read into as subtext. The visual language of hair is connective, a through line that anchors disparate POVs to a shared reality.

On Sunday night, at the 94th Academy Awards, hair was at the center of the moments that left viewers’ jaws dropped — in joy and disbelief. We watched, desperately and frantically, trying to process what we just witnessed. Hair carried the event and did exactly what hair does — elevate it to the level of art.

When the slap happened, how could it not have been about hair? Jada, Will and Chris each had their own hair story: Jada’s alopecia, Will’s seemingly painted-on buzz cut, Chris’ problematíque doc. But their situation was not an isolated flourish; it was the last chapter in a series of interlinked hair stories that played out throughout the Oscars. Hair was the driving force all night (even on commercial breaks); it made its presence felt during the red carpet, through each show segment, each camera shot of your favorite celebrity, each backstage glimpse. What had happened was, simply, hair.


Serena Williams.
(Future Publishing / Getty Images)

It was evident from the beginning. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter opened the show about 22 miles from Dolby Theatre, at the Compton tennis courts where Venus and Serena Williams practiced their way to greatness. She performed her Oscar-nominated “Be Alive,” written for “King Richard,” the film for which Smith would finally win his Oscar for lead actor. But the subtext of “Be Alive” was the tribute to the visual identities of Venus and Serena: their braided hair, stacked with beads. Early in the Williams sisters’ professional careers, the beads were a barometer for intensity when either sister hit the ball. Multicolor beads danced in sync with their tennis racket’s contact with the ball. An overhead smash sent the beads flying. Red, white and blue.

As “King Richard” showed, not everyone sitting in those stadiums understood the beauty of Black hair or believed in the ability of two Black girls from Compton. Hence, the important symbolism of hair artist Nakia Rachon’s direction as lead stylist in the “Be Alive” performance. The dancers, which included Blue Ivy Carter, wore cornrows braided into buns with platinum beaded bangs. Longer braids draped on the sides of their faces. Different-sized beads added weight and dimension; larger beads at the end of each braid helped frame the face.

A woman in a white gown on the red carpet
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

On the red carpet, hair accented each look. Zoë Kravitz stunned in a short bayang, save the Audrey Hepburn reference. Billie Eilish went dark for the evening. Wesley Snipes represented for the bald Black dads everywhere. Troy Kotsur, who won the best supporting actor prize for “CODA,” opted for the subtle utility of a ponytail.

A woman in a light pink gown
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

During the telecast, Regina Hall’s bob was a no-fuss solution with enough wave and movement for a co-host performing onstage. Venus channeled a Motown version of herself with a bright, elegant ponytail. Serena’s blunt-cut wig, swooped behind her ears, evened the symmetry of her entire look.


A woman in a pink textured gown speaks onstage
(Neilson Barnard / Getty Images)

When Rock made what he thought was a joke about Pinkett Smith’s short hair before announcing Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” as the documentary feature Oscar winner, the politics of hair may have single-handedly restored, if for one night only, some relevance to the Oscars. During the “what just happened?” fog, the shot of actress Lupita Nyong’o, adorned in a sisterlocks sculpture updo and her awestruck reaction to Smith’s slap, let us know what happened was real. It became the meme of the event.

Lupita Nyong'o.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

I was also reminded of Pinkett Smith’s recent post on Instagram, in which she explained her decision to shave her head as her alopecia became more noticeable. “Y’all know I’ve been struggling with alopecia and just all of a sudden one day, look at this line right here. Look at that. So it just showed up like that and this is going to be a little bit more difficult for me to hide. So I thought I’d just share it so y’all are not asking any questions. But you know mama’s going to put some rhinestones in there. I’m going to make me a little crown. That’s what mama’s going to do.” It seemed she was entering a new level of comfort with her hair journey.

A woman in large silver earrings and a flowing dark-green gown
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

From her bantu knots in “The Matrix” to cornrows on the red carpet when it was a rare sight, Pinkett Smith has always, in my eyes, been a hair trendsetter. What Pinkett Smith has always known is that the power of her hair is directly connected to a process of discovery on our own terms. That tradition was what gave the Oscars life Sunday night. During a night with a lot to say, hair said the most. A G.I. Jane joke couldn’t live up to the beauty we all witnessed.