P / P Interview: Justin Simien Talks Inspiration and Black Identity in Horror Genre

Publik / Private Founder, Jordannah Elizabeth and Justin Simien at Sundance Film Festival 2020

Editor’s Note: We want to send warm appreciation to Sundance Institute and the Press Inclusion Initiative for inviting me to Sundance Film Festival. I took the opportunity seriously and was able to engage in some very engaging conversations with the world’s leading Black independent filmmakers and writers. Justin Simien is one of those people. This interview with Justin was one of the highlights of the festival for me. The world premiere of his upcoming film, Bad Hair brought a very complex and scary examination of the Black female identified experience in modern American culture. After witnessing and genuinely appreciating the success of Dear White People, I wanted to talk to Justin about his thought process, and the creative and aesthetic reasoning behind the creation of his new horror film.

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Filmmaker, Justin Simien made waves with his debut film Dear White People in 2014 after winning the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival. The comedy that chronicles the experiences of Black colleges students attending a predominantly white, Ivy League college went on to become a Netflix original series, making Justin a successful television writer. This year. Simien returned to Sundance Film Festival 2020 with the world premiere of his complex horror/comedy film entitled Bad Hair.

Bad Hair takes place in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when New Jack Swing was taking over the airwaves in Black culture and ushered a new hair technique called the “weave”. When lead actress Elle Lorraine (Anna) is pressured by her boss played by Vanessa Williams to straighten her natural hair. After she is made over by an evil hair stylist played by Laverne Cox, a nightmare of her hellish weave unfolds.

Acted by an impressive ensemble cast which includes, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Usher, Blair Underwood and James Van Der Beek, this film tackles several different intercultural issues that Black woman face like good hair vs. bad hair, colorism, professional discrimination, generational oppression and slave folklore.

Justin Simien sat down with Publik / Private 48 hours after the sold out premiere of Bad Hair in Park City, Utah Sundance Film Festival 2020. He talks about the complicity of Black identity in film, including his own, which horror films influenced Bad Hair and how Black woman play a leading role in his cinematic endeavors.

After having success in comedy/drama, what made you pursue making a complex Black horror film?

[Bad Hair] does a lot and is trying to present a lot. So, I wanted people to come to it from their own subjective experiences. When you’re coming to something like Sundance, the conventional wisdom is like, “Drop it. See what the people say and what they do.” 

Did your initial inspiration for this film come upon you the same way as Dear White People did?

I think so. I think the same thing that makes me scared is the same thing that makes me want to do something. I feel like what I can’t help as a filmmaker is to go to the spaces that feel unexplored and edgy. If you look at classical psychological thrillers or horror movies, which of course, are white because that’s the dominant society, but if you look at Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, Body Snatchers or The Shining, the actual thrills of the movies are fun but the things that keep me up at night are the things that the films are saying about life.

I feel like Rosemary’s Baby is about the vulnerability of a woman who has the responsibility of giving life and literally keeping the species together. But while she’s in the most vulnerable stage of a woman’s life, giving birth, she is at the whim of all of these men. And The Shining, which is a film I’ll never stop watching, means something new to me the more I watch it. That’s really something powerful that this genre can take on these deeper topics, but they do it subconsciously. They do it to you in a sneaky way. They interrogate society and popular opinions through the guise of a thrill ride. I thought it would be really interesting to do that, but to take it to a Black place. Black people traditionally have not been able to make movies like this. And if we do, we’re not able to make it at a big scale. Continue reading