The Way ‘Nappily Ever After’ Attempts To Celebrate Black Hair Is Actually Harmful
Nappily Ever After would have significantly benefited from hiring Black people, especially women or femmes, and allowing them creative power.
By Jazmine Joyner
The natural hair movement celebrates Black hair in its natural form and encourages people of Black descent to embrace their afro-textured hair. I went natural in the fall of 2012, after years of relaxers which gave me burns on my scalp that looked like someone had put out a cigar on my head. By consistently having my hair chemically relaxed, it became so damaged that I went from having shoulder-length hair to a pixie cut.
In the Southern California suburb I grew up in, having natural hair was an added difficulty on top of being one of the only Black girls in my school. I wore my natural hair in middle school, with my giant afro puffs proudly displayed à la Jazmine in “The Boondocks”. My dad would tell me that I was “Rough and tough with my Afro Puffs.” At home, around my family, my natural hair was considered cute and stylish, but the moment I stepped onto school grounds I just had “nappy hair” which all the white kids around me stuck their hands in and pulled at.
During my freshman year of high school, I wanted to blend in and look like my favorite band at the time, My Chemical Romance, and I begged my mom to let me get a relaxer. She was against it, having worn her hair natural for as long as I could remember. Her loose curls frame her face perfectly, she and my sister have 3C hair, a more manageable texture, while I have 4C hair, a kinkier texture to which I applied protective styles including braids and cornrows. Our different hair textures meant that my mother couldn’t quite figure out a way for me to wear my hair in a pre-YouTube tutorial world, so it was often easier to just braid it up. Eventually, she gave in to letting me get a relaxer which led to my senior year’s pixie cut. I was over trying to manage the dead and fried hair that eventually sat on my head due to the relaxer chemicals, so I took some clippers and shaved it off, thus beginning my journey of returning to natural.
Black women spend nine times more than our non-Black counterparts on hair and beauty, spending about 1.1 billion dollars annually. There are documentaries, books, and television shows about Black women and our hair—a whole industry has been built up around us and our hair, including Netflix’s newly released film, Nappily Ever After, a movie based on Trisha R. Thomas’ book by the same title and starring Sanaa Lathan as Violet, a woman who cuts her long tresses and begins her natural journey following a traumatic event.
Our hair is politicized and policed in many spaces. From a young age, we’re told by schools that locs, braids, and our natural hair texture is unacceptable—and this mentality is carried over into our professional lives where natural hair is often considered “unprofessional”. Brightly colored hair on non-Black people is fun and edgy, while on Black women and femmes it is often considered ghetto. Our hair and our experiences surrounding it is something so intensely personal that if there is a film about the experience of returning to natural, I would want and expect a Black woman or femme would be the one to tell the story because experience and perspective in a heavily racialized and anti-Black world matters.
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That is the fatal flaw of Netflix’s Nappily Ever After. Adam Brooks, who is white, helmed and wrote the screenplay for the film. While Thomas’ eighteen year old novel is a dated text with problematic moments, it still pulls from an authentic place when it comes to the protagonist’s hair journey. With its director, Haifaa Al-Mansour—a non-Black woman of color—and Brooks leading the way the film was both written and directed, Violet’s experiences and her hair are strangely portrayed in a way that turns out to be harmful, especially to those who might be starting out on their own natural hair journeys.
Violet is perfection-obsessed 30-something-year-old, successful ad agent, her self-worth seems intrinsically tied to her appearance, especially the appearance of her hair which is rooted in her mother’s hyper-vigilance about it since she was a little girl. Her mother always made sure that she never had “nappy” hair, but silky smooth straight hair that is deemed more “acceptable.” Violet continues to internalize this as an adult, to the point of having her mom sneak into the house at 5 am to straighten her hair before her boyfriend wakes up. This in and of itself was ridiculous, because if Violet was truly worried her hair she would sleep with her hair wrapped—a detail missed by both the writer and director of the film.
Her need for silky tresses bleeds into her professional life, and she even has her assistant check if there might be rain or humidity before she goes out to have lunch. In the novel, her character’s hair was talked about in detail, from the length to what chemical processes she had done. The reader is deeply aware of her internal struggle to maintain her external self—something the film sorely lacks due to its poor character-building.
Even the way that Violet arrives at shaving her head is made worse by this film adaptation. While getting her straight hair washed and conditioned at the salon, her scalp begins to burn. She demands that the conditioner be washed out immediately and finds that there was chemical relaxer mixed in with conditioner and it has caused her hair to begin falling out in chunks.
In the novel, her character has agency over what happens to her hair. She decides, after research and talking it over with her friends, that she is going to shave her head. The film takes that away from her, instead creating a traumatic event for her to experience.
There is another moment during the scene in the salon where a woman voices her uncertainty about wearing her natural hair now. She is worried that men won’t like her natural texture, saying, “Brothers love long hair.” It is not until her male stylist leans in, caresses her face and tells her, “What brothers want is a woman that is real.” that she is able to embrace her natural hair.
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This gesture gets at the core of the major theme in the film—that what Black women do with our hair is somehow only valid if men deem it so. It has nothing to do with the Black women themselves and all to do with their desirability. This line of thinking is atrocious and the exact opposite of what initially takes place within the novel. Violet decides to cut her hair as a way of doing something significant for herself and embracing her natural beauty, understanding that it’s not all about having long hair.
Nappily Ever After spends a good majority of its time preaching the good gospel of going/returning to natural, but it does this by undermining Black women who are not natural, conceiving of them as inferior in some way. This false ideology is upheld by Violet’s love interest, Will (Lyriq Bent), and instead of celebrating Black women and femmes and their hair without male approval, it leaves us with an unsettling underlying theme. A significant part of the natural hair movement is about Black people having the agency to do whatever we want to the hair on our heads. Whether that means protective styles with weaves, or blowing out the hair to see the length, or a whole host of other possibilities.
The unique facets of Black hair are lost on this film because of the lack of Black people in the creative process. Nappily Ever After would have significantly benefited from hiring Black people, especially women or femmes, and allowing them creative power. It is movies like this that remind us why it is essential for us to tell our own stories. Black hair and our experiences with it can’t be minimized, compacted, and changed into a romantic comedy about a woman losing her grasp on her life who just happens to have “nappy” hair due to a trauma. That doesn’t work, and we can clearly see the disingenuousness, and lack of knowledge in the attempt. I hope those who are on their own natural journeys and see this film know that it doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience, and that no one but you should decide what to do with your natural hair.
Author Bio: Jazmine Joyner is a black disabled femme writer who resides in Southern California. In her free time she likes to write, play video games, and read.
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