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In Movies and on TV, a Recent Openness to Natural Black Hairstyles


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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 solid just as they’d been in the course of the ABC show’s eight-year run. The series had all the time 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 sweetness salon. For those aware of the topic, it’s a joyful representation of the culture. For those unfamiliar, it’s an in depth examination of all that’s Black hair, from the upkeep to the sagas of detangling, conditioning and having hair done by Mom. As Jill Scott sings within the episode, “Wear a silk bonnet and grease it at night and don’t allow them to 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 once we take our power back, why we do Bantu knots, why we do dookie braids, why we do braids. We’re celebrating our difference.”

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

Araxi Lindsey, the top 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 comfortable to be a part of a series that reflected the connection 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 woman with Afro-textured hair,” she said, adding, “I can’t wait for it to be normalized that we will wear our natural hair, not wigs and weaves, that we will have a good time the hair that naturally comes out of our scalp.”

From onscreen images of African Americans as minstrels to white actors in blackface, Black lives within the early twentieth 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 recent image upended stereotypes by celebrating the accomplishments that many Black people reached against tremendous odds. The goal was to realize a form of respectability, gaining acceptance into critical areas of society, each economic and political, to which African Americans had been denied. This was essentially a survival tactic while at the identical time redefining a people. Black hair, which Black people way back to American slavery had subjected to quite a lot of unorthodox and desperate straightening techniques, was a key ingredient on this rebranding.

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

Hairstyles like cornrows and Afro puffs have played a vital, yet complex, role in Black identity.

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

Natural styles, related to how hair had been worn during enslavement, were deemed unsophisticated. Because 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 ladies especially, Afro-textured styles were widely frowned upon, while straighter ones were considered more appropriate by Americans, each Black and white.

Such images became expected, and ultimately required, for Black women onscreen. And people preferences, reflected by Hollywood in its casting, endured into the twenty first century.

Lindsey has been styling Black hair on film and tv sets for greater than 25 years. When she began her profession within the Nineties, natural hairstyles weren’t favored for Black actors, especially women.

“In the event that they were going out for a job, they couldn’t wear their hair natural,” she said. “In case you wore your hair in locks or braids, you could be checked out as an outcast. So that you had a whole lot of women with tight, Afro-textured hair wanting these silky-straight wigs and weaves.”

She noted that lots of the roles offered to actors with natural hairstyles were often derelicts or villains. The alternatives for Black women were easy: wear a straightened look to get the part, be solid as a criminal or, worse, don’t get solid in any respect. (For Black men, a really short cropped hairdo would suffice.) It might take a long time for Black stars in Hollywood to demand the liberty to wear their hair as they selected, especially when it got here to playing a lead or a romantic interest.

Because the hairstylist for Issa Rae, the creator and star of the dramedy “Insecure,” Felicia Leatherwood has seen firsthand how necessary such decisions are to viewers. Rae, playing a romantic lead, wore loads of natural hairstyles, her Afro-textured looks constant and unabashed — one in all the various reasons the series was groundbreaking.

“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 used to be 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 supply a way of confidence and foster ideas of Black beauty using textured hair. “My intention is to be certain that 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 by way of my community and my ancestry.”

This commitment was reflected in the range of on a regular basis styles she created for Rae, looks that were meant to showcase the flexibility of Black women’s hair. On “Insecure,” she said, “I got lucky with with the ability to just create from my very own imagination and with none pushback.” As an alternative, 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 in all my joys,” Leatherwood said, adding, “Even the boys would come and say her hair looks very nice.”

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

Throughout the movie, the young actresses playing the Williams sisters display quite a lot of cornrow and braided looks, common styles for African American girls. The athletes were first introduced to America as they looked of their on a regular basis lives: unapologetically wearing beaded braids. A glance that might change into the sisters’ signature all over the world was an African American tradition.

The director recalled a scene in “King Richard,” set before a giant 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’re. “Hair is one type of our expression,” Green said, “and it’s wonderful that it’s on full display in our film.”

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

“I don’t know the way many individuals have texted me about when she got here out with those braids,” Green said. “I don’t do a whole lot of slow motion within the film, however it was very necessary for me since it was such an iconic moment in history, for them and wearing those beads, what those beads meant to generations of ladies and boys.”

When Venus enters the match together with her recent headdress, Green’s mission was to point out that “she has come into her own as a young woman,” adding, “She is now able 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 together with Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, featured a stunning array of natural and Afro-futuristic hairstyles for the rich characters in the fictional African country Zamunda. Their hairstyles reflected the fantastic thing about African culture and Afro-textured traditions.

As Barris explained, the characters within the 1988 original were recent to the USA and attempting to mix in, but with the sequel being set in Africa, “we weren’t attempting to slot in. We weren’t attempting to assimilate. We were attempting to be different.”

Lots 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 essential, and the range of styles in “Coming 2 America” was intended to honor that legacy. A neighboring country’s ruler (Wesley Snipes) wears a method inspired by amasunzu, a conventional, crested hairdo of Tutsi men in Rwanda. And the gold-adorned looks of the royal daughters (Bella Murphy and KiKi Layne) reflect the regality of high society, while their embellished Afro puffs and bubble ponytails look to the long run.

Africa and other points within 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 desired to be certain that 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 desired to have a good time locks, braids, jewels and all of the things that were familiar to our people to remind them that these styles have been around for hundreds of years. They didn’t just start within the 2000s.”

Lindsey explained that because these characters were nomads, their hair would naturally look a bit of more knotty and fewer uniform. That’s why the boys and ladies within the western wear a variety of textures and appears, 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. Each hairdos were envisioned as low maintenance, reflecting the ladies’s transient lifestyles.

Irrespective of the setting, showcasing natural Black hair onscreen is essential for another excuse: It normalizes Afro textures for non-Black audiences. Such looks change into a standard and recognizable a 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 get up in bed together with her hair out.

“I’d speak to certain producers who had no idea of the culture and no idea of being a person or a girl 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 in case your husband’s there, unless it’s sexy time, for essentially the most part, you’re going to wrap your hair in a shawl.’ And I’d hear, ‘Well, that’s probably not attractive.’”

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

Head wraps within 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 right into a transformative moment within the pilot. The younger daughter, Diane (Marsai Martin), was going to bed and so wrapped her hair.

Barris explained, “I actually have three girls, and coming from a Black mother, Black grandmothers, Black sisters — our routine at night is a special thing. We wrap our hair. It’s a part of our upbringing, and we didn’t even give it some thought 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 as a right were “tantamount to who we’re,” he said, adding, “The world has not seen us and has not been asked to see us.”

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

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

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