With “Bad Hair,” the writer and director Justin Simien, best known for the TV series and movie “Dear White People,” enters the post-“Get Out” renaissance in Black horror. This movie builds its fright night around the oppression Black women face in the form of discrimination against their natural hair. But despite the potentially heavy (or heavy-handed) material, “Bad Hair” is self-consciously and pleasingly campy, and it delivers a new cinematic monster: the sew-in weave.
In 1989 Los Angeles, Anna (Elle Lorraine) is working at a music television channel where she hopes to become an on-air host. She does her own hair, having worn it in natural styles since childhood. But kinky hair is a barrier to advancement at Anna’s work, where appeal to a white audience is vital to executive approval.
At the urging of her new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams), Anna gets her first sew-in weave. It’s an excruciating styling session (administered by Laverne Cox), and the pin-straight weave turns out to be a killer. Because while Anna may be ambitious, her weave is hungry, too. At the sight of blood, whether from a juicy hamburger or Anna’s period, her new hair demonically extends, reaching out its tendrils to soak up nourishment, as its bloodthirsty impulses begin to possess Anna.
The movie is a bit rough around the edges. The anachronistic period styling frequently distracts and suggests the limits of Simien’s budget. Costumes look like the dowdy dregs of vintage stores, and the sets seem inconsistently modeled, sometimes recalling the 1970s and at other times the 2010s. Even so, this low-budget aesthetic works for the goofy B-movie quality of the horror scenes, which rely on practical effects to inspire squirms. Mixing body horror with monster movie tropes, Simien shows needles digging into scalps and endless strands of hair creeping out of place. Avoiding jump scares, he creates thrills by pushing familiar physical sensations — like sitting for braids while tender-headed — to their extremes.
Horror provides a useful framework for Simien’s critical voice. Black women have been asked to compromise their identities to satisfy white people, and “Bad Hair” literalizes their sacrifices with blood, sweat and tears. The genre’s conventions — mythologies must be revealed and bloodlust sated — allow Simien to take aim at racism cinematically and without didacticism. Here, there is always an attack to survive or a kill to mop up. As a result, his dialogue and style in “Bad Hair” are less fussy than in his previous work. Like Anna’s demon weave, Simien’s social critique gathers vitality from the gore.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. Watch on Hulu.