A couple of weeks ago (Sept. 21), Netflix premiered Haifa al-Mansour’s “Nappily Ever After,” a film based on Trisha Thomas’s Y2K release of a book by the same name. While it isn’t altogether impertinent, it certainly has growing pains, at least a decade’s worth. It tries and fails its hand at empowerment through it’s benevolent and well-meaning.
It explores the quick-unwinding story of Venus Johnston (Sanaa Lathan), an ad exec, perfectionist, and wife hopeful. After, on her birthday, her boyfriend doesn’t propose to her, her life and the movie are a roller coaster up the rising action and a sharp turn at the climax. The breaking point is a tripartite, drunken night out where she has a klutzy almost-hookup, catches her ex boyfriend with a new woman (after shooing him away), and shaves her head.
The rest of the movie looks at Venus’s struggle to get comfortable with her hair, and then with herself–an all-too-familiar feeling for so many black women. But I can’t help feeling like the experience was cheapened and reduced to an impulse. When the black women I know shaved their heads, we’d thought about it, pondered it, and were hesitant even. It wasn’t because we got too drunk and life hadn’t been going as planned. It’s been done in either a large way or for novelty and, under both circumstances, with intent. This movie frames it as a weakness, with the realization of self-love coming at the end. And the main character is coerced and ushered into that, too.
At the brink of the latest natural hair movement, some women were definitely afraid to even enter a barbershop. It was an established territory, one we weren’t invited into, whether for work or services rendered. Bald, short, and kinky were not beautiful. It was a source of anxiety for many, but they weathered it, like you would after deciding to do something, but the main character is stripped of her autonomy. Instead, she’s ruled by the fear of being alone.
The new film takes after something that we know and recognize, but it’s not quite there. Nonetheless, the story was worth its conception 18 years ago. So much of a black woman’s life is spent on hair-related worries, whether it’s upkeep, treatment, getting it wet, or not being wavy or flowing enough. No one dares to call it “worry” because we’ve accepted it as a fact of life, a burden we were born with. Our mothers and relatives call them our crowning glories, so it cannot just be, it has to be acceptable. The pain of self-acceptance is not this film’s flaw, it’s its simplicity. That you would go home and shave your head and wake up in complete oblivion seems far-fetched. Compulsions haunts us all, but even those require a moment. The film cut too harshly with its hour and a half long parameters.
In large part, the movie misses out on kudos because it’s antiquated. It comes off as worthy of production now, with the media beginning to agree that black women are living lives worthy of note or that they do deserve love. I don’t know how mainstream it would have become if it was made on time, but it might have been more important. And still, it struggles with its identity. It becomes hard to tell whether it’s a rom-com or a declaration. And from the looks of it, the film was made commercially, adhering to an idea of normalcy, dating itself and denouncing any artfulness for fear of kitsch.
This may be someone’s story, but it can’t pose as representative. I’m all for the creation of films like this one because there’s still a ring of darkness surrounding the relationship between black women and their hair. It feels ubiquitous, of course, but people are hardly paying attention outside of our communities. This film was certainly attempting something too large for it to capture contemporaneously, but at the very least, it shed light on a true and scary, centuries-old relationship. It’s a single handprint on wet cement.