I’m happy to report that, despite concluding the Fear Street trilogy months ago, the opportunities to enjoy horror that embraces a late ’80s/early ’90s aesthetic are far from over. What’s more, this week’s feature is a Justin Simien film, which almost makes me forget that we’re fresh out of new seasons of Dear White People. Almost.
After a new weave opens up career possibilities for ambitious Anna, she quickly realizes her hair has its own horrific intentions.
As a young girl, Anna’s older cousin helps her relax her hair for the first time, a process that involves strong chemicals that can damage the hair and scalp if not used correctly. Unfortunately for Anna, the process burns her scalp, leaving a permanent scar.
Years later, in 1989, Anna lives with the scar and wears a natural hairstyle. She works for TV channel Culture, which features music and programs by Black artists. After pressure from the higher ups to make the channel more profitable, Anna’s beloved boss is replaced with Zora, who is much less interested in challenging the status quo.
Quietly ambitious Anna manages to impress Zora with her ideas to shake up the channel, even as her friends fail to earn the respect of the new boss and Anna’s secret lover breaks her heart. The one thing holding back Anna from complete success? According to Zora, it’s her hair.
Upon the recommendation of Zora, Anna goes to salon to the stars, Virgie’s. Taking pity on Anna, Virgie accepts her as a client while providing the warning that the process will be extremely painful–to the point that Anna passes out during the styling. Virgie has special products of her own that she keeps secret, but are so reputable that Janet Jackson-like star Sandra is a client.
With her powerful new hair changing her career as promised, Anna isn’t too concerned about Virgie’s warnings that she must never let her hair get wet, nor is she bothered by the odd glow Sandra’s eyes have at times. Anna is sought after at work and in the glamorous parties she now attends, though her friends and coworkers aren’t so lucky.
While it’s somewhat alarming that Anna’s hair seems to have a will of its own that is particularly drawn to blood, it isn’t until her creepy landlord attacks her that the hair’s violent power becomes apparent. Does Anna control her new look…or does it control her?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
I feel conflicted because, while I absolutely love Justin Simien’s work and am floored by the stellar cast of this film, I was…kind of bored at times? I think there are too many things this film aims to accomplish, so a lot of the elements receive only surface-level attention.
One of the major successes of Simien’s stellar series Dear White People is the attention given to character development; even at times when I’m frustrated by some of the character choices in the show, I appreciate and understand their motivations. Here, a lot of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, and Anna is honestly not super interesting. She begins having a bit of an awkward nerd (aka Lionel Higgins) character arc, but instead of actually growing, it’s the hair that takes over her personality.
This connects to my confusion about the film’s message, which I want to be the empowering story about the uses of Black women’s anger that it could be. Some of the themes about beauty expectations are promising too, but they end up feeling at times like a criticism of individual choices rather than the effective social commentary they could have been. I would have liked for Anna’s hair to be a tool she uses to unleash her anger, however problematically. But Anna doesn’t control what her hair does, so the story is more or less that a woman lacking agency becomes a woman…still lacking agency. It’s a bleak message that doesn’t quite fit with the film’s tone, and not always compelling in this story.
Either way, I’ll absolutely be watching Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion reboot.