Dangerous Hair: Expensive White Folks writer explains horror film’s politics

[Ed. note: A short excerpt from this interview ran in January in conjunction with Bad Hair’s premiere at Sundance 2020.]

It’s laborious to overstate the seeming camp price of Dangerous Hair, Justin Simien’s newly launched Hulu horror-satire a couple of Black girl whose weave begins murdering other people. Set in 1989, it’s a throwback to an generation when absolutely anything is usually a horror-movie antagonist, together with an evil ground lamp.

However Simien’s follow-up to Expensive White Folks and his Netflix sequence of the similar title is a lot more sophisticated than the tagline makes it appear. Elle Lorraine stars as Anna, a TV govt hoping to change into the following giant VJ celebrity. Her flashy new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams) thinks she has attainable — however provided that she updates her taste to check the smooth new glance of feminine pop stars like Sandra (Kelly Rowland). Anna complies, heading to hairdressing famous person Virgie (Orange is the New Black celebrity Laverne Cox) for a weave. However the procedure of getting hair sewn onto her scalp is bloody and traumatizing, and the brand new hair has a vicious thoughts of its personal, in ways in which mirror each Simien’s personal existence as a Black artist making an attempt to slot in, and his tastes in classical filmmaking. Polygon sat down with Simien at Sundance to discuss Dangerous Hair’s sophisticated politics, and to believe the difficulties of operating with evil hair.

This interview has been edited for concision and readability.

You’ve stated Dangerous Hair used to be partly impressed through the Korean horror movie The Wig, which led you down a trail of obsessing over Asian hair-horror. Do you have got a non-public Perfect Evil Hair Motion pictures checklist?

Justin Simien: The Wig and Exte: Hair Extensions are beautiful laborious to overcome. Like numerous nice Korean horror films, they use the idea to enter a wide variety of puts — like, The Wig goes into trans problems. They’re each actually out-there films. It felt like there used to be a blueprint there to create one thing new, however American, which I used to be surprised hadn’t came about already. At the males’s facet of items, there used to be “Hell Toupee,” an episode of Wonderful Tales a couple of toupee from hell, and [the anthology Body Bags] includes a balding man who will get these things that sparks evil hair. I assumed, “That’s attention-grabbing territory for a film.”

I felt like a Black girl needed to be on the middle of a film like that, as a result of with this style, you’ve were given to have a Ultimate Woman. That’s the way in which we’ve processed mental thrillers and horror. And I felt like there used to be a chance there to do what white male filmmakers did with Carrie, and Dressed To Kill, and Rosemary’s Child, the place you utilize style machinations to drag in these types of cinematic types that most often don’t have compatibility in combination. In mental thrillers, as a result of they perform on any such unconscious stage, you’ll pass there a bit of bit extra. And after they’re completed in a definite means, they’re pronouncing one thing about society. That’s actually the place it began for me.

Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine, and Lena Waithe stare offscreen in Bad Hair by Justin Simien

Photograph: Sundance Institute

After which the next move for me used to be to search out actually good Black girls and ask, “Howdy, I’m no longer a Black girl, however I’m marginalized in a number of how. I’m homosexual, and rising up, I felt extra at house in Black feminine tradition than I did in Black male tradition. I believe like I’ve one thing to mention right here. However what are your reports?” And plenty of scary hair reports got here up, like stress-free your hair and getting a chemical burn, or the true procedure of having a weave.

I talked to ladies who have been getting weaves in 1989. The styling, the way in which we do Anna’s hair within the movie, is the methodology of the time, except for the blood and the witchcraft. As scary because the weave ways sounded to me, the actual horror I felt used to be coming via used to be the sensation that Black girls repeatedly have to make a choice from themselves and their ambitions. Coming as you’re is rarely the primary possibility. Possibly you’re a lady who loves to have her hair directly, or possibly you like it kinky and herbal, however “as you’re” is rarely the primary selection. It’s a must to determine, “What do they would like?” After which, “What portions of myself do I’ve to bring to a halt to slot in the field of what they would like?”

That’s the horror that used to be being communicated to me, and that’s after I were given occupied with this movie, as a result of now we’re speaking a couple of machine. We’re no longer moralizing a lady’s selection. We’re exploring a machine the place alternatives are introduced, however are they ever actually alternatives? In the event you’re informed, “Get a weave or be fired,” is {that a} selection?

I may relate to that still, as a homosexual Black filmmaker. What are the tales that may by no means even happen to me to inform, that I’ll by no means inform, that can simply die in my soul as a result of I’ve to make sure alternatives to slot in that field? To make it to Netflix, to make it into theaters, to visit Sundance, to get picked up, to get the cheap to inform a larger tale. I’ve to invite, “What alternatives do I’ve to make to get in the ones packing containers?” earlier than I will even take a look at in with who I’m or what I need to do.

When I discovered that’s what I used to be speaking about with this movie, I hung numerous obsessions that felt associated with that onto it: the time frame of 1989, the New Jack Swing motion, which is occurring within the background of the movie. The slave folklore that the majority Black other people have been by no means taught about — other people normally, however particularly for Black other folks, that is exact knowledge from our ancestors, the primary of our individuals who stepped foot on this nation, who skilled the American machine. I simply felt like several of that belongs in the similar film. [Laughs] “No person’s attempted to do that earlier than, and I’m most probably no longer meant to do that.” That’s after I’m like, “Ok, I’m gonna do this.”

Laverne Cox in Bad Hair


You’ve talked in regards to the issue of being pigeonholed as a Black comedy director. Did you wish to have to increase into horror partly to get out of doors that field?

It’s no longer even a improper factor. It’s simply that I do really feel like this style — horror, mental mystery, no matter we name it, it’s all roughly the similar style. That is the only the place filmmakers actually get to play. In particular, white male filmmakers. That’s after they get to throw all their obsessions and fetishes on the door. Beginning, actually, with Hitchcock. I believe Vertigo started this custom of white males with the ability to actually throw their fetishes and obsessions into a movie, to make one thing actually private, and possibly a bit of grimy, and possibly a bit of strange. All of the issues you’ll’t be in different conventional genres.

And so I sought after in! I sought after in on that style, completely. Simply because I knew I may play, and create one thing dense and complex and mangled, feeling no longer comfortable and uncomfortable as a part of the revel in. I knew if I used to be going to make issues that inform uncomfortable truths, that could be a fab style to do it in. I began writing a remedy for this proper once we did Expensive White Folks. After which when Get Out got here into theaters, it used to be like, “Ok, now there’s a longtime market. Let’s in reality make this film.”

When I talked to you for Expensive White Folks, numerous that dialog used to be in regards to the procedure of making a viral target audience, and the use of your advertising revel in to get to a spot the place it is advisable to get funded. Have you ever discovered it any more straightforward now, particularly submit Get Out?

No. [Laughs] There’s not anything simple about it. We made this film independently, nevertheless it’s been six years since my first film. There were a lot of films that I’ve been connected to, or attempted to make, or no matter, at studios, at the entire other ranges. It’s not simple. You’ll be able to be speaking a couple of solid of one of the most maximum gifted other people, award-winning, A-list. But if they’re Black, particularly in the event that they’re Black girls, all at once other people get chilly toes. “Oh, I don’t know if we know the way to succeed in those other people. We don’t know the way to strengthen this movie.”

It’s wild. I discuss this with my white buddies and my Black buddies, however in particular filmmakers who went to Sundance [the same year he was accepted there with Dear White People]. The variation between our reports after which can be transparent. And I’m no longer complaining, as a result of having a display on Netflix opt for 4 years, I’m very happy with that. Attending to make a 2nd film, I’m very happy with that. However I’m acutely aware of the tests I by no means were given, I’m acutely aware of the conferences I by no means were given, I’m acutely aware of the pitches that by no means went went to a inexperienced gentle.

As a result of I additionally produce a display, and I’m a showrunner, I am getting to be an recommend. One in all my favourite issues is to look Black girls administrators paintings on Expensive White Folks. As a result of on my set, you’ll do no matter you wish to have, so long as it’s cinematic. If it’s in line with the nature adventure, do regardless of the fuck you wish to have.

It’s cool to look individuals who don’t get those alternatives doing that. I’m very mindful that the machine isn’t actually lower out for individuals who aren’t white males to get available in the market and discover their passions, and discover bizarre shit about themselves as artists. A part of making this film is a bit of rebellious streak in me, like, “I am getting to make these types of films too!” And I am getting to cause them to about Black tales, they usually get to be sophisticated, they usually get to lift questions. It’s the similar spirit with which I made Expensive White Folks.

Anna (Elle Lorraine) weeps while getting a torturous weave in Bad Hair

Photograph: Tobin Yellan / Hulu

The tone of this film is so sophisticated — it’s camp, it’s a drama about racial problems, there’s gore, there’s politics. How did you navigate hanging these types of various things on most sensible of one another?

I’m simply paying attention to the melody in my very own head. I acknowledge that oftentimes, it’s no longer a melody different individuals are making a song. [Laughs] However I really like films when there’s not anything else like them. We needed to get used to Brian De Palma. We needed to get used to Stanley Kubrick. We needed to get used to Roman Polanski — I’m no longer going into the horrific nature of his actual existence and politics. However as filmmakers, those white males made us used to the artwork they make. So a part of it’s, this stuff really feel proper in my soul, so I’m going to mix them in the way in which that feels proper to me. Expensive White Folks used to be the similar means.

Once I rewatch a few of my favourite films, I’m stunned — I take into accout Carrie other from after I watch it. Similar with The Shining, and Frame Snatchers, Dressed To Kill, The Wicker Guy. They in reality have those extremely screwball-comedy moments, and sci-fi moments, and camp, B-movie components. And so they all pass in combination. What’s the unifying factor about all of them? That director is obsessive about all the ones issues, so they simply put them of their film. That’s why Vertigo is so good, despite the fact that not anything about it makes any fucking sense, or must paintings. [Laughs] Hitchcock used to be simply really obsessive about the ones issues.

I simply sought after to present myself the revel in of following that, but in addition pair that with actual, consistent conversations with the reports of exact Black girls. At all times, I sought after to invite Black girls, “Did I am getting your revel in proper? What you’re telling me is scary, and must be interrogated.” The ones are the 2 using philosophies of Dangerous Hair: What am I obsessive about? And what are my selected sisters telling me is on their minds?

Dangerous Hair jogged my memory in portions of Suspiria, and The Shining, and Little Store of Horrors. There are such a large amount of components in play. Do any of the ones really feel like influences for you?

Completely. Particularly Little Store. The way in which the track works on this film is like little Greek choruses. The songs are designed in the similar means New Jack Swing is. The ones 1990s songs are bops, they usually actually make you wish to have to bounce. However then you definately begin to pay attention to the messages, and also you’re like, “Oh, that feels roughly rapey!” Or “That’s very misogynistic, in reality.” I imply, “Poison,” which is like certainly one of my favourite songs of all time is principally, “Don’t consider that lady, she’s sexy!” [Laughs] However all of us dance to it, as it makes us really feel excellent!

However the ones are the themes Black other people may sing about on the time. The ones are the songs their white-owned document labels allowed them to do. We’re by no means actually in keep an eye on of the machine, even if we’re allowed to get sure levers in it. And I assumed like, “Oh, which may be cool to borrow from.”

And that’s what Little Store of Horrors does. That trio [of singers] seems each and every time one thing frightening is set to occur, nearly to warn the characters. In Dangerous Hair, it roughly works in opposite. It’s within the tradition round Anna, simply earlier than she decides, or simply earlier than one thing occurs to her, feeding her this message, pulling her deeper into the film, getting us and her conditioned to make sure alternatives.

Amos (Blair Underwood) holds up a book of African folklore displaying a monster called The Moss Haired Girl in Bad Hair

Photograph: Tobin Yellan / Hulu

Anna’s characterization is atypical. She needs to be a celeb, she needs to be a pace-setter and form folks’s tastes. However she’s so prone, shy, and awkward. She has any such laborious time talking up for herself. What went into development her?

On each and every stage, any persona any person writes is most probably a model of them. I believe Anna is most probably portions of my inside female jumbled in with actual conversations with Black girls. The item I felt is correct about her, which is correct about me and true about girls I talked to is that we acknowledge that we will’t be noticed in any respect, except we take the aspirational bait. She’s grown up on Sandra films and Sandra track movies, her entire existence. And that’s a part of why it’s so cool to me that Kelly Rowland [who plays Sandra] and Elle Lorraine, who performs Anna, glance roughly equivalent. Anna’s thrust into this tradition in society the place she’s no longer making a song, she’s no longer heard from, she’s made to really feel ashamed of who she is of course is. The one factor dangling in entrance of her instead is Sandra’s model of being a lady, so in fact that’s the model she gravitates towards.

I’ve parallels to that as a filmmaker. I handiest have a couple of alternatives to be had, as I see it, to do the issues I’m looking to do on this lifetime. It doesn’t subject that I’m an introvert. It doesn’t subject that my obsessions are strange and disparate. I nonetheless need to be noticed! Anna’s ambition is partially hers, and partially not-hers. It’s partially an ambition she inherited. You’ll be able to see the seeds of her conditioning from her aunt, from her uncle, from the tales she’s informed, from where she works, from the track movies, from her obsession with Sandra.

And since we’re no longer answerable for this society, our aspirations don’t seem to be actually ours. Some of the issues I believe is so attention-grabbing about the idea that of need, like, “What do you wish to have to be whilst you develop up?” is that you’ll handiest actually select from the issues that exist in society already. No person need to be an astronaut earlier than other people went to house. No person may need to be a filmmaker earlier than there used to be movie. You’re restricted and outlined through the decisions tradition will provide you with.

Anna is handiest given a couple of choices of the right way to be on this planet, with a view to be noticed. Now not even to continue to exist or thrive, however to only also be allowed for other people to understand who she is, and that she belongs within the room. She’s handiest given a couple of variations of girl to be, and she or he choices the person who’s closest to her. In order that’s why she’s like a package deal of all of the ones tensions, nervousness and naïveté and shyness, however ambition and energy, as a result of that’s telling the reality, as I see it.

Zora (Vanessa Williams) and Anna (Elle Lorraine) sit in a business meeting after Anna gets her new weave in Bad Hair

Photograph: Tobin Yellan / Hulu

It’s so not unusual for horror films’ Ultimate Ladies to transform grim action-hero badasses. However Anna remains prone as much as the tip. She by no means will get previous being scared. Used to be that the most important plot level for you?

I don’t suppose it used to be like a selected selection, like “It must be like this!” However I do really feel like numerous instances, a minimum of in my view, when the Ultimate Woman turns into all that, it’s very fetishy. It’s a person’s fetish about what a formidable girl must be and really feel like. The reality of the subject is that I’m scared. Like, I’m scared at this time! I’m scared with each and every step I absorb American society! That’s simply me being truthful. There’s a false narrative that claims, “It’s a must to be this sturdy, impenetrable, invulnerable, unfeeling factor with a view to continue to exist!” That’s a bullshit lie. That’s a jail in cover. This felt extra truthful to me.

And a part of it’s, Elle is in order that fucking nice at being prone on digicam, and taking us emotionally into issues which can be so absurd. She unearths the human word to strike. My task as a director is to pay attention up to it’s to talk, and to lean into the decisions my actors are making. This simply felt like probably the most original one to me.

What’s fascinated about directing an evil weave? One of the crucial hair results in Dangerous Hair are CGI, however you utilize numerous puppetry and stop-motion sensible results, too.

The corporate that did it is named Alterian. Tony Gardner, who innovated numerous particular results, we had a dialog early on about how the idea that is nuts, so we gotta flooring other people in a fact that feels bodily. There were hair-related issues in pop culture that I don’t suppose are extraordinarily a hit, as a result of they depended on CGI. I felt between taking pictures on movie and the use of actual hair… One, it appeared like a actually a laugh option to make a film. It felt like the type of moviemaking I grew up pondering I’d get to do. Now not being in an antiseptic laptop lab the place you’re punching in knowledge and seeing issues at the display. I grew up observing George Lucas principally play with what gave the impression of toys to make Big name Wars, and Steven Spielberg operating with puppets. So it felt like a a laugh option to make the film. But it surely’s additionally a option to flooring the ridiculousness of it. As implausible as it’s, you’re seeing it going down. Even if we’re accentuating the results pictures with virtual results, there’s that base there of actual hair, actually doing issues — actually grabbing other people, actually braiding itself.

There’s numerous opposite pictures that we used, numerous tips. We threw hair in water tanks and spiraled it and noticed what it did. Such a lot stuff comes from the physicality of creating it with actual stuff that may by no means happen to you an animator sitting in a room, pondering, “What would hair do if it used to be alive?” This manner, lets see. In order that’s why. However the largest reason why used to be, it used to be simply actually a laugh.

What’s your easiest hair-wrangling tale?

There used to be simply hair all over the place, at all times. You understand, it used to be humorous, ‘motive we have been in reality taking pictures on movie, and “Take a look at the gate” after we have been clearing the digicam used to be no longer a euphemism. We actually needed to take a look at the gate, as a result of oftentimes there used to be hair within the gate. [Laughs] In this film, hair used to be simply in all varieties of puts you didn’t suppose hair must be. We might all pass house on the finish of on a daily basis pulling strands out of more than a few orifices and nooks and crannies.

I don’t have any horror tales, however the factor about sensible results is, you get a hold of all these things — Alterian examined for a very long time — however then you definately get on set, and also you actually do not know what it’s gonna do, the way it’s gonna glance, whether or not it’s gonna paintings. You were given to determine on time and in price range, with exact movie rolling throughout the digicam. It used to be anxiety-ridden needless to say, the revel in of creating it, however I believe in an effective way.

The movie has a 1980s duration glance. Why did you wish to have that taste?

Partially to flooring it. In any killer-weave film [Laughs], we’re going to move to a couple ridiculous puts, and I felt just like the movie grain made you consider you have been in Los Angeles in 1989, with out me having to actually do the rest. Clearly the dress paintings and manufacturing design is impeccable. Simply seeing the way in which the movie captured that made me consider I used to be there. It additionally gave the true taking pictures of the film a actually superb tempo. Capturing on movie has a rhythm of its personal. And I assumed it could be cool if it felt such as you discovered some film from 1989 that used to be by no means launched for some reason why, or that you simply had simply by no means heard of, which is more or less how I felt like observing The Wig, or Exte. It’s similar to any person smuggled this factor to you that feels adore it should have existed, again then. I simply idea that used to be cool.

There’s been a small run of horror movies in recent years, like The Love Witch or In Cloth or The Visitor, which can be mindful throwbacks to the 1970s and 1980s. Do you suppose there’s a reason why filmmakers are having a look again to that generation at this time?

I believe it’s partly since the 1970s is without doubt one of the golden ages of cinema. I made Expensive White Folks on a virtual digicam. We shoot the display on virtual cameras. There’s one thing that used to be misplaced in that procedure that I believe numerous us are simply attaining out for, to really feel once more. There’s simply one thing about the way in which New York seems shot on movie, or the Put out of your mind Resort seems shot on movie. It makes you are feeling such as you’re there. It has a dreamlike high quality. It feels adore it’s each actual and false on the similar time. No less than that used to be the enchantment for me.

And thematically, I felt like 1989 used to be the best time to set the film, as a result of that used to be a time when city Black tradition used to be being appropriated beneath the guise of being celebrated. It used to be additionally the time that the weave actually burst into pop culture.

You deliver up The Shining so ceaselessly whilst you discuss your films, and cinema normally. Used to be the axe-dragging shot in Dangerous Hair a connection with it?

[Laughs] Most certainly subconsciously! In truth, there are such a large amount of references to The Shining which can be intentional, and truthfully, that one is solely unconscious. There are numerous axes in horror films, too. However The Shining is a type of films — I don’t even know if I actually knew what the film used to be about till the 5th time I watched it. My idea used to be simply, “You might want to do this with Black shit!” You’ll be able to make one thing that appears like something the primary time you watch it, however there’s issues about it that roughly stick on your craw.

With the finishing of The Shining, you pass “Actually? What the fuck? Is it about reincarnation? Is he a ghost? I’m puzzled.” And it forces you to look at the film once more, and understand, there’s a simple starting, heart, and finish narrative, however then there are these types of facet passages which can be in reality about The usa, in regards to the home circle of relatives, about alcoholism. The truth that you’ll do all of that, in a film that’s handiest two hours lengthy… The entire films I reference do this come what may. That’s most probably why I deliver it up so ceaselessly.

You named the protagonist after your mother, and 3 of the principle characters after her sisters. Used to be there extra to that than a non-public in-joke?

All of my aunts are useless. My Aunt Virgie died whilst I used to be taking pictures Expensive White Folks, and I simply felt like — I sought after their names to be in pop culture. That actually is where I made the film — there are such a large amount of tales, such a lot of issues we’re made to really feel ashamed about, and such a lot of facets of our lives that we by no means discuss in a public house, they usually get buried with us. The similar is correct for African folklore. I made up The Moss-Haired Woman for the film, however the different tales discussed within the film are actual piece of the folklore which can be good and educational for Black other folks. However we don’t have get admission to to them. They’re simply buried with the folk that got here up with them. Nonetheless, there used to be simply one thing, truthfully, that had not anything to do with any roughly calculus. I simply sought after to place their names in one thing that may reside.

Dangerous Hair is streaming on Hulu now.

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