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In Films and on TV, a New Openness to Natural Black Hairstyles

On the recent series finale of “black-ish,” an array of Black hairstyles was on display: cornrows, box braids, sponge-brushed curls, twists and Afro puffs. All were worn by the cast just as they had been during the ABC show’s eight-year run. The series had always depicted Black hair with pride, intentionally featuring it as a commonality of Blackness.

Take “Hair Day,” the “black-ish” episode dedicated to the complexities of Black hair. Culturally specific topics like wash day, touch-ups and the myriad hairstyles that Black women wear are highlighted in dance and song, evoking warm memories of the beauty salon. For those familiar with the subject, it’s a joyful representation of the culture. For those unfamiliar, it’s a detailed examination of all that is Black hair, from the maintenance to the sagas of detangling, conditioning and having hair done by Mom. As Jill Scott sings in the episode, “Wear a silk bonnet and grease it at night and don’t let them pull your edges too tight!”

For the creator of “black-ish,” Kenya Barris, hair was its own character. It’s “such an incredible differentiator between us and mainstream America,” he explained in an interview, adding, “That’s why when we take our power back, why we do Bantu knots, why we do dookie braids, why we do braids. We’re celebrating our difference.”

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Black, or Afro-textured, hair has always been at the forefront of African American identity, but its relationship to mainstream America and Hollywood has been complicated. It’s something the current generation of stylists are acutely aware of as they go about their work on shows and films like “black-ish,” “Insecure,” “The Harder They Fall” and “King Richard.”

Araxi Lindsey, the head hairstylist for “black-ish” during its first six seasons and a member of the team that won an Emmy for the contemporary looks featured on “Hair Day,” said she was happy to be part of a series that reflected the relationship between Black women and their tresses. The series showed that men “can love their wives with natural-textured hair, that a young boy can fall in love with a girl with Afro-textured hair,” she said, adding, “I can’t wait for it to be normalized that we can wear our natural hair, not wigs and weaves, that we can celebrate the hair that naturally comes out of our scalp.”

From onscreen images of African Americans as minstrels to white actors in blackface, Black lives in the early 20th century were rarely projected in a positive light.

Black people fought those negative caricatures by constructing a version of Blackness that appeared more palatable to whites. This new image upended stereotypes by celebrating the accomplishments that many Black people reached against tremendous odds. The goal was to achieve a kind of respectability, gaining acceptance into critical areas of society, both economic and political, to which African Americans had been denied. This was essentially a survival tactic while at the same time redefining a people. Black hair, which Black people as far back as American slavery had subjected to a variety of unorthodox and desperate straightening techniques, was a key ingredient in this rebranding.

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As Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps explain in “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” in their quest for the American dream “one of the first things Blacks had to do was make white people more comfortable with their very presence.” The authors write that education “made little difference if a person looked too ‘African.’ Kinky hair, wide noses and full lips translated to ‘ignorant’, ‘uncivilized’ and ‘infantile.’ So Blacks did what they could to emulate European standards of beauty.”

Or as Barris put it, “Our hair is such an important thing because at one point we tried to assimilate. We tried to straighten it, we conked it.”

Natural styles, associated with how hair had been worn during enslavement, were deemed unsophisticated. As the Great Migration took hold, African Americans were becoming more cosmopolitan, and their coiffures reflected that transformation. Afro-textured hair was country, straight hair was chic. Consequently, for women especially, Afro-textured styles were widely frowned upon, while straighter ones were regarded as more appropriate by Americans, both Black and white.

Such images became expected, and ultimately required, for Black women onscreen. And those preferences, reflected by Hollywood in its casting, persisted into the 21st century.

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Lindsey has been styling Black hair on film and television sets for more than 25 years. When she began her career in the 1990s, natural hairstyles were not favored for Black actors, especially women.

“If they were going out for a role, they couldn’t wear their hair natural,” she said. “If you wore your hair in locks or braids, you would be looked at as an outcast. So you had a lot of women with tight, Afro-textured hair wanting these silky-straight wigs and weaves.”

She noted that many of the roles offered to actors with natural hairstyles were often derelicts or villains. The choices for Black women were simple: wear a straightened look to get the part, be cast as a criminal or, worse, don’t get cast at all. (For Black men, a very short cropped hairdo would suffice.) It would take decades for Black stars in Hollywood to demand the freedom to wear their hair as they chose, especially when it came to playing a lead or a romantic interest.

As the hairstylist for Issa Rae, the creator and star of the dramedy “Insecure,” Felicia Leatherwood has seen firsthand how important such choices are to viewers. Rae, playing a romantic lead, wore plenty of natural hairstyles, her Afro-textured looks constant and unabashed — one of the many reasons the series was groundbreaking.

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“People were writing me, ‘I just watch the show for the hair,’” Leatherwood recalled. “I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know the hair had that impact on people.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, I was waiting to see what her hair was going to do.’ Or, ‘I got my work hairstyles off the show’ and ‘I did my daughter’s hair like that.’ I didn’t even realize the impact of her hair until Twitter showed up.”

Leatherwood said her job as a hairstylist is to provide a sense of confidence and foster ideas of Black beauty using textured hair. “My intention is to make sure that we recognize the queen or the king in us, we recognize the royalty through the hairstyles,” she said, adding that her work was more about “instilling self-esteem in terms of my community and my ancestry.”

This commitment was reflected in the variety of everyday styles she created for Rae, looks that were meant to showcase the versatility of Black women’s hair. On “Insecure,” she said, “I got lucky with being able to just create from my own imagination and without any pushback.” Instead, Rae and the show’s other writers and producers were supportive, with especially positive reactions to the star’s natural looks on set. “This was one of my joys,” Leatherwood said, adding, “Even the men would come and say her hair looks really nice.”

The very act of presenting Black hair can be powerful in itself. “Hair is an expression of who we are and how far we’ve come. It’s our legacy,” said Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of the biopic “King Richard,” about the father of the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

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Throughout the movie, the young actresses playing the Williams sisters display a variety of cornrow and braided looks, common styles for African American girls. The athletes were first introduced to America as they looked in their everyday lives: unapologetically wearing beaded braids. A look that would become the sisters’ signature around the world was an African American tradition.

The director recalled a scene in “King Richard,” set before a big match, when their mother, Oracene Price, is braiding Venus’s hair and reminding her daughters to never lose sight of their pride in being Black and in who they are. “Hair is one form of our expression,” Green said, “and it’s wonderful that it’s on full display in our film.”

That scene presented a tender moment between a Black mother and daughter: Venus (Saniyya Sidney) sitting patiently as her mother braids. A few minutes later, Venus heads to the court, her white-beaded braids swinging in slow motion.

“I don’t know how many people have texted me about when she came out with those braids,” Green said. “I don’t do a lot of slow motion in the film, but it was very important for me because it was such an iconic moment in history, for them and wearing those beads, what those beads meant to generations of girls and boys.”

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When Venus enters the match with her new headdress, Green’s mission was to show that “she has come into her own as a young woman,” adding, “She is now ready to wear this armor out, it was like her Superman cape.”

Black hair as a distinguished armor was also key to the recent sequel “Coming 2 America,” which was nominated for an Oscar for makeup and hairstyling. The movie, written by Barris along with Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, featured a dazzling array of natural and Afro-futuristic hairstyles for the wealthy characters in the fictitious African country Zamunda. Their hairstyles reflected the beauty of African culture and Afro-textured traditions.

As Barris explained, the characters in the 1988 original were new to the United States and trying to blend in, but with the sequel being set in Africa, “we weren’t trying to fit in. We weren’t trying to assimilate. We were trying to be different.”

Many of the hairstyles were purposely elaborate, illustrating the African heritage of complex coifs. As an ancestral source for Black American culture and history, African representation is important, and the variety of styles in “Coming 2 America” was intended to honor that legacy. A neighboring country’s ruler (Wesley Snipes) wears a style inspired by amasunzu, a traditional, crested hairdo of Tutsi men in Rwanda. And the gold-adorned looks of the royal daughters (Bria Murphy and KiKi Layne) reflect the regality of high society, while their embellished Afro puffs and bubble ponytails look to the future.

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Africa and other points in the African diaspora were the inspiration for “The Harder They Fall,” the all-Black western based on real figures. But in that 2021 film, the natural ’dos point to the past, said Lindsey, who served as hair department head.

“I wanted to make sure that we showed Afro-textured hairstyles from different cultures and influences from the 1800s — styles from Africa, the Caribbean and Europe — and incorporate them,” she said. “I wanted to celebrate locks, braids, jewels and all the things that were familiar to our people to remind them that these styles have been around for centuries. They didn’t just start in the 2000s.”

Lindsey explained that because these characters were nomads, their hair would naturally look a little more knotty and less uniform. That’s why the men and women in the western wear a range of textures and looks, indicative of their roles in society.

Lindsey matted the hair of Zazie Beetz, who portrays the gun-toting Stagecoach Mary, while she created locks for Regina King’s tough-as-nails Treacherous Trudy Smith. Both hairdos were envisioned as low maintenance, reflecting the women’s transient lifestyles.

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No matter the setting, showcasing natural Black hair onscreen is important for another reason: It normalizes Afro textures for non-Black audiences. Such looks become a common and recognizable part of Blackness, including how hair is styled and cared for. When these images aren’t readily presented and consumed, confusion and ambivalence can arise.

Lindsey recalled several experiences on sets when showrunners wanted a Black woman to wake up in bed with her hair out.

“I would speak to certain producers who had no idea of the culture and no idea of being a man or a woman with Afro-textured hair,” she said. She would tell them, “‘Hey, if she’s waking up, typically for an Afrocentric woman, she would wrap her hair. It doesn’t matter if your husband’s there, unless it’s sexy time, for the most part, you’re going to wrap your hair in a scarf.’ And I would hear, ‘Well, that’s not really attractive.’”

Lindsey added, “They’re speaking from their mind-set of the story, but I’m actually speaking from real life, from honesty.”

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Head wraps in the morning and at night were de rigueur on “Insecure,” and Rae’s character was often in a silk scarf, even when she was next to her partner in bed. On “black-ish,” a head scarf figured into a transformative moment in the pilot. The younger daughter, Diane (Marsai Martin), was going to bed and so wrapped her hair.

Barris explained, “I have three girls, and coming from a Black mother, Black grandmothers, Black sisters — our routine at night is a different thing. We wrap our hair. It’s part of our upbringing, and we didn’t even think about it on a mostly Black crew.”

But when the show aired, “people lost their minds,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh my God, what’s that?’ It had not been done, and that’s how little representation we had.”

Barris called that scene a turning point for “black-ish.” Little things he took for granted were “tantamount to who we are,” he said, adding, “The world has not seen us and has not been asked to see us.”

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Green described it another way. “We’re never going to be too Black for our own movies.”

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