The film, “Nappily Ever After,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, is highly representative of the stigma surrounding black physical features in present-day America. Haifaa al-Mansour was the very first female Saudi Arabian director and is known for challenging the patriarchy with controversial actors and taboo plots. Haifaa influences the way Saudi films are created and viewed by the public, most recently directing “The Perfect Candidate” in 2019 (“Haifaa Al-Mansour”).
Through the life of actress Sanaa Lathan, playing Violet Jones, who struggles with a constant need to reach perfection, a powerful message is told. The film emphasizes the need to celebrate individuals’ race and gender and rejects the modern Eurocentric ideals of beauty while commenting on the struggles that black women face in America’s workforce. Violet’s character exemplifies the ever-present boundaries female Black Americans are placed within and inspires the viewer to challenge their own definition of identity.
Violet’s mother is consumed by the presentation of her child, as it is a reflection of not only herself but of her ethnicity. From a young age, Violet must prove that she is “just as well-groomed as any white child” (Al-Mansour). In the very first scene, Violet cannonballs into the pool to play with her peers. Faint sounds of gasps fill the silence as Violet emerges from the water with her natural hair.
A boy chuckles, “You look like a chia pet” (Al-Mansour). Thus, Violet’s mother “fixes” her hair once a week with a boiling hot iron. Not only does her mother preach perfection, but she also teaches Violet that the only way to be happy was through a man— a man she must constantly impress. With reminders such as: “You deserve the world. One day you will find a man who will give it to you” (Al-Mansour), Violet is groomed to define herself based on male standards.
Historically, emulating white hairstyles, specifically straight and long, was associated with freedom from slavery, higher education, and employment (Patton). Many runaway slaves used this feature to hide in plain sight and convince society that they were free. Lighter-skinned and straighter-haired slaves often completed less backbreaking work, ultimately giving them better meals, education, and hope for freedom (Patton). The dense history behind black hairstyles is present today, as women are pressured to mirror the hair of white women. As Violet walks into work without her “fixed” hair, the stares from men disappear, and her boss questions her sanity and ability to complete competent work. The modern black woman is also constrained by this obligation to society through strict dress and hair codes. Black culture is picked apart and used selectively for the white man’s gain, appropriating black music and dance while refusing to celebrate natural hairstyles and dress.
Our Current Climate
Female black features remain a vital obstacle in the professional world. Many women, such as Gabby Douglas, prove that race and gender have the power to diminish success in modern society. At the 2012 Olympics, Douglas became the first black woman to win the individual all-around championship for gymnastics in America (Abad-Santos). Upon winning this prestigious award, Douglas’s hair became a hot topic amongst critics, and this narrative continues into the present day. Due to the double standard that women must be properly groomed and act with poise to represent America, many do not support her. Douglas refused to put her hand over her heart during the National Anthem and was ridiculed while her male counterparts were not. Her competitive and fearless attitude did not meet the expectations of a submissive woman in America, resulting in the backlash that diminished her hard work and professional achievement (Abad-Santos).
A famous quote by Marcus Garvey: “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain!” reflects the overall theme of “Nappily Ever After” (Patton). Rather than forming one’s sense of self based off of obligation to the other, this film empowers black women to find an identity that does not conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. Violet unhinges herself from these constraints and recognizes her complacency in the injustices of being a Black woman in a white-dominated world. Both Violet’s character and Gabby Douglass portray the boundaries in which Black Americans are placed within and inspire viewers to dismantle this type of systematic oppression. Through the dramatic phases of Violet’s changing hair comes the transformation from dependent to independent, weak to strong, and powerless to powerful. Violet takes control of her own fate, “changing the world, one head at a time” (Al-Mansour).
Abad-Santos, Alex. “Gabby Douglas’s Olympics Experience Fits the Pattern of How We Treat
Black Female Athletes.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 15 Aug. 2016, www.vox.com/2016/8/15/12476322/gabby-douglas-rio-olympics-racism.
Al-Mansour, Haifaa, director. Nappily Ever After. Netflix, 21 Sept. 2018.
“Haifaa Al-Mansour.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/name/nm2223783/bio?ref_=nm_ql_1.
Patton, Tracey Owen. “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair: African American Struggles with
Beauty, Body Image, and Hair.” NWSA Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, 2006, pp. 24–51.