Our mission to help you navigate the new normal is driven by subscribers. Subscribe today for full access to our journalism.
Publisher's Note: The following piece is based on an interview that focused on the Sundance Film Festival editing of Bad Hair.
When asked Justin Simien to name a few films that inspired Bad Hair, his glorious frolicking through obsessive tissues, the music video culture of the late 80s, and the systemic oppression pouring on Hulu this Friday, he rattles off more than a dozen of them without to blink.
“Invasion of the Body Snatcher! The original Carrie weaving melodrama and camp together. Really everything Brian De Palma did in the 80s, but especially Dressed to Kill, this film that follows the obsessions of a white straight man and is completely politically incorrect and crappy in all these ways … "
His smile just keeps getting bigger. Interviewed by Fortune at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, just before selling Bad Hair to Hulu for more than $ 8 million, the writer and director comes to the fore when he talks about a movie he's made for holds a great influence. In his horror satire, set in 1989, Anna (Elle Lorraine), an aspiring assistant at Culture, the black arm of an MTV-like network, receives a (literally) grueling innovation in the hope of climbing the corporate ladder. When the Do turns out to have a taste for blood, its horrified host becomes embroiled in a conspiracy rooted in slave folklore and the capitalist hierarchy. Suffice it to say the film is a smoothie, part of Get Out and Sorry to Bother You-esque social horror mixed with the camp comedy from Little Shop of Horrors and They Live's anti-capitalist agenda.
But it was 1982 Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a lesser-known sequel to John Carpenter's classic slasher that gave Bad Hair the most unlikely fuel, Simien explains. "It's the Halloween movie that nobody likes because Michael Myers isn't really in it," he notes. "But man, I love this movie."
Considered a curiosity within its franchise, Season of the Witch dropped Myers – the masked killer best known for terrorizing Jamie Lee Curtis – to instead tell a stand-alone story of mad scientists and ancient Celtic rituals in which a crazy toy maker planned to butcher children with deadly Halloween masks and a stone stolen from Stonehenge.
“People are constantly being conditioned by these commercials to put the masks on,” explains Simien, 37. “And then they eat your brain! And then you get to the ultimate villain behind it all, and they goddamn go away! That's terrifying for me. Because that means the system is designed in such a way that I can never figure out how it's built against me. Bad hair is designed to have these experiences and it is only when you get to the end that you realize that you have been in a maze the entire time. "
From left: Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine and Lena Waithe in “Bad Hair” by Justin Simien. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Simien first came to Sundance in 2014 with his directorial debut Dear White People, a sharp and contemporary racing satire that followed the experience of several black students at an Ivy League college, and left the festival winning the Special Jury Award. But he struggled to block another feature despite managing to turn Dear White People into a series for Netflix. Far from believing he'd made it as a filmmaker, Simien felt cooped up.
"In many ways, I just felt controlled and bound by these cultural forces so that I had no insight or knowledge of who was serving them," he explains. “Who decided that blacks could only make films like this or look like this? We did not do it. It was designed to look and feel like it was our choice, but it wasn't. "
Though Dear White People was a more no-nonsense comedy, despite being riddled with withered punchlines and side nudges toward a supposedly “post-racial” America, Simien shot it through with such brazen, cinephile touches – shots that took off right from Bergman's Persona and Kubrick's The Shining; A scene where a student unexpectedly declares his love for Robert Altman (“Motherfucker goes in!”) – that cumulatively it felt like something bigger.
As Simien's protagonists grappled with identity politics issues on campus that were as garish as black and insidious as misogyny, his behind-the-camera decisions were remembered – though owed to more obvious influences in places like Spike Lee's School Daze and Do the Right Thing Howard Hawks and Sidney Lumet films were just as quick. Such a cinematic-literary approach added meta-textual folds to the racial commentary by Dear White People. By framing his black characters in compositions that evoked influential (and almost entirely white) images from the last half century in theaters, even though those characters debated their lack of representation within that canon, Simien pushed the film from provocation into something similar to restoration . (His Dear White People series for Netflix was even bolder in that regard. It directed its narrative Rashomon-style, nodding to Barry Lyndon in one scene, The Godfather in the next.)
Simien has similar tricks in Bad Hair and stages classic genre moments as a kind of lingua franca to connect his perspective with that of Hitchcock and Kubrick. Anna's visit to an eerie salon where the ominous virgin (Laverne Cox) sews her fabric in is a piece of body horror vivid enough to turn David Cronenberg's stomach. A diopter with split focus is implemented, one of the few homages to De Palma's Body Double. An ax appears in the third act, but The Shining is referred to throughout, particularly through Kris Bower's screeching, dissonant score. Visual cues on everything from cat people to psycho abound. The movie's J-horror debt grows more pronounced as soon as women with possessed tissues attack and swirl their curls around like Gorgon snakes.
But as deeply rooted in Simien's love of horror as Bad Hair is, it also feels unique, never more than in a subplot that follows the Janet Jackson-like rise of Sandra (Kelly Rowland), a pop star who visits Virgie's salon . Simien was so excited about the character that he himself wrote Sandra's chintzy, strangely convincing pop songs. The writer and director chose Bad Hair in 1989, both because the fabric had become popular by the time, and because black musicians broke through to mainstream radio in the late 80s in a way he thought was fascinating.
"New Jack Swing was a whole new genre of music that black people invented and sang over hip-hop beats," explains Simien. “In this way, the artist's personality has suddenly replaced technical precision. There were superstars like Janet Jackson Platz. But what happened is that this very kind of music is only sung by whites in the later part of the decade and is simply 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 overlaps with Anna's cultural journey, ominously renamed a cult by her ruthless new boss (Vanessa Williams), but not before weaving even more diverse threads together, including one about old witches. Bad hair is extremely ambitious and inherently messy. It even begins with a quote from James Baldwin, "American history is longer, bigger, more diverse, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it," before getting caught up in the women's black hair freight policy while promoting sexism in the workplace and questioning cultural appropriation before it turns into a silly horror freak-out.
Justin Simien, Elle Lorraine, Yaani König Mondschein, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Kelly Rowland and James Van Der Beek of "Bad Hair" during the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020 in Park City, Utah. Vivien Killilea – Getty Images
As Simien expected, the early reviews of Sundance were split, with some writers praising Bad Hair's ambition and others criticizing its length and expanse. Personally, Simien couldn't be happier that the film was split.
"You only realize that culture is really ready for certain things when you do them," he says. “Despite the success of films like Get Out and Us, people are not used to black stories being told that way in this room.
"But as a gay black guy, if I just follow my obsessions I'll mix up shit that other people don't mix up," he adds. "We're used to horror films that go through the filter of white men and their obsessions and fetishes. And I love them by the way. Dizziness to me is just an exploration of Hitchcock's fetishes; he was a kinky guy, but it's such an amazing movie." But it's interesting what happens when people who normally aren't 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 further exploring the political black hair minefield, and in particular the pressures black women face to relax and straighten their locks to get in certain Situations – especially – to be perceived more favorably by whites in positions of power.
“When at the end of the capitalist totem pole, when people have only a choice or two, we go through life and think, 'I chose this life. I wanted that, ”he explains. “The truth is, I only had two options. I was conditioned to want one of two things. If you're in a society that says you have to get that fabric or lose your job, that's not really a choice. "
But Simien "didn't want to do anything overly moral," he notes. "& # 39; It's good to get a tissue! It's bad to get a tissue!" I thought that would be very boring – and neither is my place to say. "
So instead he turned to horror. Initially, Simien caught up with entries in the sparsely populated hair horror subgenre, including the South Korean film The Wig and the J-horror entry Exte: Hair Extensions, both about women obsessed with their new hair. There was no clear American equivalent for such films that Simien loved – although he knew that as a black gay man he couldn't tell the story on his own. Simien crouched down with black female creatives like Lena Waithe (who would later play a role as Anna's ironic collaborator in the film), Tiffany Johnson, and Dime Davis, 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 these discussions, the more I realized that it's not so much the fabric itself that is the scary part of the film," says Simien. “That the tissue is possessed could go either way. Sometimes it can empower Anna, and sometimes it can take power away from Anna. The scariest thing is that we can live our whole lives in society and never know who we are or who we might be if society doesn't put us in these little classifications and force us to duck out of this Crate to get to this crate. "
Horror films have long been about examining social issues, from racism and nuclear terror to consumer culture and conservatism. What's missing in the genre, Simien points out, is a black perspective on the same structural oppressions, even though the color communities are much more affected by them.
"When you know it's a horror movie, you subconsciously feel more comfortable facing your own fears," he says. But with so few black filmmakers working in horror, the dominant films in the genre tend to reflect the fears and fears of the white audience – leaving everyone else out of line.
"We were taught to be ashamed of our inner thoughts and fears," says Simien. “I'm really looking forward to the jazz musicians and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Because when jazz was found out in America or the renaissance was happening, they did what black filmmakers are doing right now: taking small steps into the bigger mainstream to have those conversations that were happening privately, in dark corners, in such a way We didn't realize that other of us felt the same way.
"The shit we're going to have to unpack about black culture is really complicated," he adds. “And social horror at its core makes us layer a lot of really complicated things on top of each other. Including Halloween III! Because horror was really just a bunch of white guys who were free as hell like filmmakers. Now I want that. "
Bad Hair hits Hulu on October 23rd.
More needs to be read Entertainment coverage from capital::
- Antebellum tackles the past head-on to "move forward"
- Jeff Daniels on James Comey and the need to take the 2020 election “seriously”
- Can Disney + dethrone Netflix?
- Fewer Waiters, No Menus: Is Square's New Service The Future Of Food?
- Fortune & # 39; s 2020 40 Under 40