Justin Simien talks ‘Bad Hair,’ following his genre obsessions, and getting ‘free as hell’ in ’80s horror satire

October 22, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

Editor’s Note: The following piece is based on an interview that focused on the Sundance Film Festival cut of Bad Hair.

Asked to name a few films that inspired Bad Hair, his gloriously out-there romp through possessed weaves, late-’80s music-video culture, and systemic oppression streaming on Hulu this Friday, Justin Simien rattles off more than a dozen without blinking.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers! The original Carrie, how it weaves together melodrama and camp. Really, everything Brian De Palma did in the ’80s, but especially Dressed to Kill, this movie that’s following a white straight man’s obsessions and is totally politically incorrect and fucked up in all these ways…”   

His smile widening as he goes, the writer-director—interviewed by Fortune at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, shortly before selling Bad Hair to Hulu for upwards of $8 million—becomes particularly effusive when discussing one movie he considers a major influence. In his 1989-set horror-satire, Anna (Elle Lorraine), an aspiring assistant at Culture, the Black arm of an MTV-style network, gets a (literally) killer new do in hopes of climbing the corporate ladder. When it emerges that said do has a taste for blood, its horrified host becomes tangled in a conspiracy with roots in slave folklore and capitalist hierarchy. Suffice it to say, the film’s a smoothie, chunks of Get Out and Sorry to Bother You–style social horror blended against the camp comedy of Little Shop of Horrors and They Live’s anti-capitalist agenda.

But it was 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a lesser-known sequel to John Carpenter’s classic slasher, that provided the most unlikely fuel for Bad Hair, Simien explains. “It’s the Halloween movie nobody likes, because Michael Myers isn’t really in it,” he notes. “But, man, I fucking love that movie.”

Considered a curio within its franchise, Season of the Witch ditched Myers—the masked killer best known for terrorizing Jamie Lee Curtis—to instead tell a stand-alone tale of mad scientists and ancient Celtic rituals, in which a deranged toymaker plotted to slaughter children using deadly Halloween masks and a rock stolen from Stonehenge. 

“People are being constantly conditioned by these commercials to put the masks on,” explains Simien, 37. “And then they eat your brain out! And then you get to the ultimate baddie, who’s behind all of this, and they just fucking disappear! That is terrifying, to me. Because what it means is that the system is designed for me to never find out how it’s set up against me. Bad Hair is designed in that way, where you’re put through these experiences, and only when you get to the end of it, you realize you’ve been in a maze the whole time.”

From left: Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine, and Lena Waithe in “Bad Hair” by Justin Simien.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Simien first came to Sundance in 2014 with his directorial debut, Dear White People, a tart and timely satire of race that followed the experiences of several Black students at an Ivy League college, and he left the festival a Special Jury Award winner. But he struggled to lock down another feature, despite succeeding in adapting Dear White People into a series for Netflix. Far from believing he’d made it as a filmmaker, Simien felt boxed in. 

“In so many ways, I just felt controlled and bound by these cultural forces that I had no insight into or knowledge of who operated them,” he explains. “Who decided Black people could only make this kind of movie or look this kind of way? It wasn’t us. It’s been made to look and feel like it was our choice, but it wasn’t.”

Though Dear White People was a more straightforward comedy, albeit one iron-spiked with withering punch lines and sidelong jabs in the direction of a supposedly “post-racial” America, Simien shot it through with such brazen, cinephile touches—shots lifted directly from Bergman’s Persona and Kubrick’s The Shining; a scene in which a student unexpectedly declares his love for Robert Altman (“Motherfucker goes in!”)—that it felt cumulatively like something bigger.

As Simien’s campus-activist protagonists sparred over matters of identity politics as garish as blackface and insidious as misogynoir, his choices behind the camera—though in places indebted to more obvious influences like Spike Lee’s School Daze and Do the Right Thing—just as readily recalled films by Howard Hawks and Sidney Lumet. Such a cinema-literate approach added meta-textual wrinkles to Dear White People’s racial commentary. By framing his Black characters in compositions that evoked influential (and almost entirely white) imagery from the past half-century in cinema, even as those characters debated their lack of representation within that very canon, Simien pushed the movie from provocation into something more like reconstitution. (His Dear White People series for Netflix has been even bolder in this respect, staging its narrative Rashomon-style and nodding to Barry Lyndon in one scene, The Godfather in the next.)

Simien’s up to similar tricks in Bad Hair, restaging classic genre moments as something of a lingua franca to bridge his perspective with those of Hitchcock and Kubrick. Anna’s visit to a sinister salon, where the ominous Virgie (Laverne Cox) sews in her weave, is a snatch of body horror vivid enough to turn David Cronenberg’s stomach. A split-focus diopter is implemented, one of a few homages to De Palma’s Body Double. An axe shows up in the third act, but The Shining is referenced throughout, especially through Kris Bowers’ shrieking, dissonant score. Visual references to everything from Cat People to Psycho abound, with the film’s J-horror debt becoming more pronounced once women with possessed weaves go on the attack, their tresses thrashing around like Gorgon serpents. 

But as steeped in Simien’s love of horror as Bad Hair is, it also feels uniquely his, never more than in a subplot that follows the Janet Jackson–esque rise of Sandra (Kelly Rowland), a pop star who frequents Virgie’s salon. Simien was so taken with the character as to write Sandra’s chintzy, oddly convincing pop songs himself. The writer-director chose to set Bad Hair in 1989 both because the weave had become popularized around that time and because, by the tail end of the ’80s, Black musical artists were breaking through to mainstream radio in a manner he found fascinating.

“New jack swing was a whole new musical genre that Black people were inventing, singing over hip-hop beats,” explains Simien. “Just by doing that, suddenly, the personality of the artist superseded their technical precision. It gave way to superstars like Janet Jackson. But what happened is that that exact kind of music just gets sung by white people in the later part of the decade, and just gets called pop music, as if Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys invented it. But it’s the same music!”

The film’s Sandra subplot ultimately intersects with Anna’s journey at Culture—ominously rebranded as Cult by its ruthless new boss (Vanessa Williams)—but not before it weaves together even more disparate threads, including one about ancient witches. Bad Hair is ambitious in the extreme and messy by design. It even opens with a James Baldwin quote—“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”—before getting caught up in the freighted politics of Black women’s hair, all the while interrogating workplace sexism and cultural appropriation, before it becomes a goofy-gory horror freak-out.

Bad Hair
Justin Simien, Elle Lorraine, Yaani King Mondschein, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Kelly Rowland, and James Van Der Beek of “Bad Hair” during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Vivien Killilea—Getty Images

As Simien expected, early reviews out of Sundance were split, with some writers praising the ambition of Bad Hair and others criticizing its length and sprawl. Personally, Simien couldn’t be happier the film’s been divisive. 

“You don’t realize how the culture is not really ready for certain things until you do them,” he says. “Even with the success of films like Get Out and Us, people are not used to Black stories being told in this way, in this space.

“But as a gay Black man, if I’m just following my obsessions, I’m going to blend shit together that other people aren’t blending,” he adds. “We’re used to horror movies going through the filter of white men and their obsessions and fetishes. And I love them, by the way. Vertigo, to me, is just an exploration of Hitchcock’s fetishes; he was a kinky dude, but it’s such an amazing film. But it’s interesting what happens when people who are typically not allowed to set the tone are given access to genres like this.”

After the success of Dear White People, Simien knew he was interested in exploring further the political minefield of Black hair, and specifically in examining the pressures Black women face to relax and straighten their locks in order to be perceived more favorably in certain settings—especially by white folks in positions of power. 

“When the people at the bottom of the capitalist totem pole are only given one or two choices, we go through life thinking, ‘I chose this life. I wanted this,’” he explains. “The truth is, I was only given two choices. I’ve been conditioned to want one of two things. If you’re in a society that says you have to get this weave or lose your job, that’s not really a choice.”

But Simien “didn’t want to make something overly moralistic,” he notes. “‘It’s good to get a weave! It’s bad to get a weave!’ I thought that’d be very boring—and, also, not my place to say.”

So instead, he turned to horror. First, Simien caught up on entries in the sparsely populated “hair horror” subgenre, including a South Korean film, The Wig, and J-horror entry Exte: Hair Extensions, both about women possessed by their new hair. There was no clear American equivalent for such films, which excited Simien—though he knew, as a gay Black man, he couldn’t tell the story by himself. Hunkering down with Black female creatives such as Lena Waithe (who’d later take a role in the film, as Anna’s wry coworker), Tiffany Johnson, and Dime Davis, Simien kept his ears open and a pen ready.

From left: LaFaye Baker, Vanessa Williams, and Yaani King Mondschein in a scene from “Bad Hair.”
Tobin Yellan—Hulu

“The more we had those discussions, the more I realized it’s not so much the weave itself that’s the scary part of the movie,” says Simien. “That the weave is possessed could go either way. Sometimes, it can empower Anna, and sometimes it can strip power from Anna. What is scariest is that we can spend our whole lives in a society and never, ever get to experience who we are or who we might be, were it not for the ways the society puts us in these little classifications and forces us to duke it out to get from this box to that box.”

Horror movies have long been concerned with probing social issues, from racism and nuclear terror to consumer culture and conservatism. What’s been missing from the genre, Simien stresses, is a Black perspective on these same structural oppressions, despite how much more adversely communities of color are affected by them.

“If you walk into it knowing it’s a horror movie, you’re subconsciously more at ease to face your own fears,” he says. But with so few Black filmmakers working in horror, the dominant films of the genre have tended to reflect the fears and anxieties of white audiences—leaving everyone else out of frame.

“We’ve been taught to feel ashamed of our internal thoughts and fears,” says Simien. “I look to the jazz musicians and Harlem Renaissance poets a lot for inspiration. Because when jazz was being figured out in America or the Renaissance was happening, they were doing what Black filmmakers are doing right now: taking baby steps into the larger mainstream to have these conversations that were happening, in private, in darkened corners, in such a way that we didn’t realize others of us were feeling this same way.

“The shit we have to unpack about Black culture is really complicated,” he adds. “And social horror, at its core, it lets us put a lot of really complicated things on top of each other. Including Halloween III! Because, again, horror has really just been a bunch of white dudes being free as hell as filmmakers. Now, I want that.”

Bad Hair comes out on Hulu Oct. 23.

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