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Editor’s Word: The next piece relies on an interview that targeted on the Sundance Movie Pageant lower of Dangerous Hair.
Requested to call a number of movies that impressed Dangerous Hair, his gloriously out-there romp via possessed weaves, late-’80s music-video tradition, and systemic oppression streaming on Hulu this Friday, Justin Simien rattles off greater than a dozen with out blinking.
“Invasion of the Physique Snatchers! The unique Carrie, the way it weaves collectively melodrama and camp. Actually, the whole lot Brian De Palma did within the ’80s, however particularly Dressed to Kill, this film that’s following a white straight man’s obsessions and is completely politically incorrect and fucked up in all these methods…”
His smile widening as he goes, the writer-director—interviewed by Fortune on the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, shortly earlier than promoting Dangerous Hair to Hulu for upwards of $eight million—turns into significantly effusive when discussing one film he considers a significant affect. In his 1989-set horror-satire, Anna (Elle Lorraine), an aspiring assistant at Tradition, the Black arm of an MTV-style community, will get a (actually) killer new do in hopes of climbing the company ladder. When it emerges that stated do has a style for blood, its horrified host turns into tangled in a conspiracy with roots in slave folklore and capitalist hierarchy. Suffice it to say, the movie’s a smoothie, chunks of Get Out and Sorry to Trouble You–type social horror blended towards the camp comedy of Little Store of Horrors and They Dwell’s anti-capitalist agenda.
However it was 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a lesser-known sequel to John Carpenter’s traditional slasher, that supplied essentially the most unlikely gasoline for Dangerous Hair, Simien explains. “It’s the Halloween film no person likes, as a result of Michael Myers isn’t actually in it,” he notes. “However, man, I fucking love that film.”
Thought of a curio inside its franchise, Season of the Witch ditched Myers—the masked killer finest identified for terrorizing Jamie Lee Curtis—to as a substitute inform a stand-alone story of mad scientists and historical Celtic rituals, by which a deranged toymaker plotted to slaughter youngsters utilizing lethal Halloween masks and a rock stolen from Stonehenge.
“Individuals are being continually conditioned by these commercials to place the masks on,” explains Simien, 37. “After which they eat your mind out! And you then get to the last word baddie, who’s behind all of this, they usually simply fucking disappear! That is terrifying, to me. As a result of what it means is that the system is designed for me to by no means learn how it’s arrange towards me. Dangerous Hair is designed in that approach, the place you’re put via these experiences, and solely while you get to the tip of it, you notice you’ve been in a maze the entire time.”
Simien first got here to Sundance in 2014 together with his directorial debut, Expensive White Individuals, a tart and well timed satire of race that adopted the experiences of a number of Black college students at an Ivy League school, and he left the competition a Particular Jury Award winner. However he struggled to lock down one other characteristic, regardless of succeeding in adapting Expensive White Individuals right into a sequence for Netflix. Removed from believing he’d made it as a filmmaker, Simien felt boxed in.
“In so some ways, I simply felt managed and sure by these cultural forces that I had no perception into or data of who operated them,” he explains. “Who determined Black folks may solely make this sort of film or look this sort of approach? It wasn’t us. It’s been made to appear and feel prefer it was our alternative, however it wasn’t.”
Although Expensive White Individuals was a extra easy comedy, albeit one iron-spiked with withering punch traces and sidelong jabs within the path of a supposedly “post-racial” America, Simien shot it via with such brazen, cinephile touches—pictures lifted instantly from Bergman’s Persona and Kubrick’s The Shining; a scene by which a scholar unexpectedly declares his love for Robert Altman (“Motherfucker goes in!”)—that it felt cumulatively like one thing larger.
As Simien’s campus-activist protagonists sparred over issues of identification politics as garish as blackface and insidious as misogynoir, his decisions behind the digital camera—although in locations indebted to extra apparent influences like Spike Lee’s Faculty Daze and Do the Proper Factor—simply as readily recalled movies by Howard Hawks and Sidney Lumet. Such a cinema-literate method added meta-textual wrinkles to Expensive White Individuals’s racial commentary. By framing his Black characters in compositions that evoked influential (and nearly totally white) imagery from the previous half-century in cinema, whilst these characters debated their lack of illustration inside that very canon, Simien pushed the film from provocation into one thing extra like reconstitution. (His Expensive White Individuals sequence for Netflix has been even bolder on this respect, staging its narrative Rashomon-style and nodding to Barry Lyndon in a single scene, The Godfather within the subsequent.)
Simien’s as much as related methods in Dangerous Hair, restaging traditional style moments as one thing of a lingua franca to bridge his perspective with these of Hitchcock and Kubrick. Anna’s go to to a sinister salon, the place the ominous Virgie (Laverne Cox) sews in her weave, is a snatch of physique horror vivid sufficient to show David Cronenberg’s abdomen. A split-focus diopter is applied, one of some homages to De Palma’s Physique Double. An axe reveals up within the third act, however The Shining is referenced all through, particularly via Kris Bowers’ shrieking, dissonant rating. Visible references to the whole lot from Cat Individuals to Psycho abound, with the movie’s J-horror debt turning into extra pronounced as soon as girls with possessed weaves go on the assault, their tresses thrashing round like Gorgon serpents.
However as steeped in Simien’s love of horror as Dangerous Hair is, it additionally feels uniquely his, by no means greater 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 put in writing Sandra’s chintzy, oddly convincing pop songs himself. The author-director selected to set Dangerous Hair in 1989 each as a result of the weave had grow to be popularized round that point and since, by the tail finish of the ’80s, Black musical artists have been breaking via to mainstream radio in a way he discovered fascinating.
“New jack swing was a complete new musical style that Black folks have been inventing, singing over hip-hop beats,” explains Simien. “Simply by doing that, abruptly, the persona of the artist outdated their technical precision. It gave solution to superstars like Janet Jackson. However what occurred is that that precise form of music simply will get sung by white folks within the later a part of the last decade, and simply will get referred to as pop music, as if Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys invented it. However it’s the identical music!”
The movie’s Sandra subplot finally intersects with Anna’s journey at Tradition—ominously rebranded as Cult by its ruthless new boss (Vanessa Williams)—however not earlier than it weaves collectively much more disparate threads, together with one about historical witches. Dangerous Hair is formidable within the excessive and messy by design. It even opens with a James Baldwin quote—“American historical past is longer, bigger, extra varied, extra stunning, and extra horrible than something anybody has ever stated about it”—earlier than getting caught up within the freighted politics of Black girls’s hair, all of the whereas interrogating office sexism and cultural appropriation, earlier than it turns into a goofy-gory horror freak-out.
As Simien anticipated, early critiques out of Sundance have been break up, with some writers praising the ambition of Dangerous Hair and others criticizing its size and sprawl. Personally, Simien couldn’t be happier the movie’s been divisive.
“You don’t notice how the tradition just isn’t actually prepared for sure issues till you do them,” he says. “Even with the success of movies like Get Out and Us, individuals are not used to Black tales being instructed on this approach, on this house.
“However as a homosexual Black man, if I’m simply following my obsessions, I’m going to mix shit collectively that different folks aren’t mixing,” he provides. “We’re used to horror motion pictures going via the filter of white males and their obsessions and fetishes. And I really like them, by the way in which. Vertigo, to me, is simply an exploration of Hitchcock’s fetishes; he was a kinky dude, however it’s such a tremendous movie. However it’s attention-grabbing what occurs when people who find themselves usually not allowed to set the tone are given entry to genres like this.”
After the success of Expensive White Individuals, Simien knew he was all in favour of exploring additional the political minefield of Black hair, and particularly in inspecting the pressures Black girls face to loosen up and straighten their locks so as to be perceived extra favorably in sure settings—particularly by white people in positions of energy.
“When the folks on the backside of the capitalist totem pole are solely given one or two decisions, we undergo life considering, ‘I selected this life. I wished this,’” he explains. “The reality is, I used to be solely given two decisions. I’ve been conditioned to need one in every of two issues. For those who’re in a society that claims it’s important to get this weave or lose your job, that’s probably not a alternative.”
However Simien “didn’t wish to make one thing overly moralistic,” he notes. “‘It’s good to get a weave! It’s unhealthy to get a weave!’ I assumed that’d be very boring—and, additionally, not my place to say.”
So as a substitute, he turned to horror. First, Simien caught up on entries within the sparsely populated “hair horror” subgenre, together with a South Korean movie, The Wig, and J-horror entry Exte: Hair Extensions, each about girls possessed by their new hair. There was no clear American equal for such movies, which excited Simien—although he knew, as a homosexual Black man, he couldn’t inform the story by himself. Hunkering down with Black feminine creatives similar to Lena Waithe (who’d later take a task within the movie, as Anna’s wry coworker), Tiffany Johnson, and Dime Davis, Simien saved his ears open and a pen prepared.
“The extra we had these discussions, the extra I spotted it’s not a lot the weave itself that’s the scary a part of the film,” says Simien. “That the weave is possessed may go both approach. Typically, it may well empower Anna, and generally it may well strip energy from Anna. What’s scariest is that we are able to spend our entire lives in a society and by no means, ever get to expertise who we’re or who we is perhaps, have been it not for the methods the society places us in these little classifications and forces us to duke it out to get from this field to that field.”
Horror motion pictures have lengthy been involved with probing social points, from racism and nuclear terror to client tradition and conservatism. What’s been lacking from the style, Simien stresses, is a Black perspective on these identical structural oppressions, regardless of how far more adversely communities of coloration are affected by them.
“For those who stroll into it figuring out it’s a horror film, you’re subconsciously extra relaxed to face your individual fears,” he says. However with so few Black filmmakers working in horror, the dominant movies of the style have tended to mirror the fears and anxieties of white audiences—leaving everybody else out of body.
“We’ve been taught to really feel ashamed of our inner ideas and fears,” says Simien. “I look to the jazz musicians and Harlem Renaissance poets so much for inspiration. As a result of when jazz was being found out in America or the Renaissance was occurring, they have been doing what Black filmmakers are doing proper now: taking child steps into the bigger mainstream to have these conversations that have been occurring, in non-public, in darkened corners, in such a approach that we didn’t notice others of us have been feeling this identical approach.
“The shit we’ve to unpack about Black tradition is actually sophisticated,” he provides. “And social horror, at its core, it lets us put loads of actually sophisticated issues on prime of one another. Together with Halloween III! As a result of, once more, horror has actually simply been a bunch of white dudes being free as hell as filmmakers. Now, I need that.”
Dangerous Hair comes out on Hulu Oct. 23.