I Saw Myself On Film For The First Time In Netflix’s “Nappily Ever After”
When I was six, I’d take a washcloth to my skin and scrub as hard as I could until it was red and raw. I thought if I did this enough that maybe it would turn me white — that maybe one day I would wake up with the same long flowing hair that moved in the wind and pale freckled skin that many of my elementary school friends had.
When I look back now, it dawns on me how sad and sick it is that I was already so concerned with my physical appearance at just six years old, but I know from many conversations with other black women that this isn’t an isolated case but can be a common part of the black female experience.
I was already quite fond of lead actress Sanaa Lathan’s work so when I saw the trailer for Nappily Ever After, I was pretty buzzed to see it. Her 2006 film Something New is one of those rom-coms that I love re-watching.
Based on a novel by Trisha Thomas, the Netflix-produced Nappily Ever After recounts the natural hair journey of a woman named Violet (played by Lathan), as well as her journey to self-love and acceptance. In the past five years, the natural hair movement has really taken off as more and more black women are choosing to forgo relaxed hair for their natural curls, coils and kinks. It’s a beautiful time to be a black woman and it’s exciting to see mainstream media joining in on the conversation.
Nappily Ever After begins with a young Violet standing at the edge of a pool watching other (white) children swim and run around. A white boy teases her from inside the pool and, much to her mother’s dismay, she jumps in. After coming up for air, her hair has matted up and the boy, along with the other kids in the pool, jeer at Violet. Her mother snatches her out of the pool and they promptly drive home; shame covers Violet’s face. We see images of Violet at the kitchen table while her mother presses her hair out with a hot comb.
Lathan narrates the scene, talking about how she spent her youth watching white children be free to run around and make messes of themselves and their appearances with no consequences while she stood on the sidelines, obeying her mother’s orders to be well-behaved, prim, proper and well-groomed 24/7. They were free to be what they were: kids. While Violet was taught about the ways in which she needed to be fixed and groomed to perfection.
The contrast was jarring but all too familiar. It looked like a scene out of my own youth spent largely in predominantly white schools and neighborhoods.
Later in the film, we meet a 10-year-old girl named Zoe (played by Daria Johns) whose natural hair and quirky personality provide an interesting contrast to Violet’s own childhood of restriction and perfection.
As an adult, Violet’s mother Pauletta (played by Lynn Whitfield) still comes over in the mornings to press her hair and works hard to continually enforce an attitude of striving in her daughter.
All of the grooming and priming seem to have paid off as everyone in Violet’s life refers to her as “perfect.” Ironically enough, she works in the industry that sells that unique blend of hope and insecurity: beauty advertising.
A series of unfortunate events leads up to a very lit Violet standing in front of her bathroom mirror with smeared makeup and tears streaming down her face. She grabs the electric razor.
There was something incredibly poetic about watching Lathan’s Violet drunkenly shave her head, The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home” soundtracking the moment while Lathan’s facial expressions changed from stern resolve to smiles to tears and back again. There were no words or sounds, aside from her occasional intoxicated laugh-cries and yet, it made me feel so much.
For the first time, I saw myself on film.
Saturdays were always reserved for the hair salon. My mother would drag my sister and I out of bed early in the morning so we could drive from our predominantly white suburb to the other side of the city to get our hair pressed. It was an all-day affair, no matter how early you arrived at Miss Deb’s, that usually got us home just in time for dinner. I distinctly remember this as the end of an era. No more afternoons spent jumping on the trampoline in our backyard or running around at the park. That meant sweating and sweating meant ruining my hair and wasting my parents’ money.
Shortly after, I began getting relaxers. The burning sensation on my scalp was no match for me. For I was a “trooper” and a “strong girl,” according to the assemblage of hair dressers we went to throughout the years. It was in these salons that I subconsciously learned some very dangerous and, now I realize, untrue lessons. Beauty is pain. Black women need to be fixed in order to be loved, accepted and seen as beautiful by others. For the majority of my teenage and college years, I wore a shroud of shame.
My own natural hair journey began at 15. As the rebellious middle child that I am, I became sick of being dragged to hair salon after hair salon over the years. I didn’t understand why I had to change myself to be seen as acceptable or to have “manageable” hair. It was especially hard to reconcile the mixed messaging that I was “made in the image of God” but also needed to get my hair chemically straightened. I grew out my hair for a few months but after being told repeatedly by various black women in my life that it would be “impossible” for me to do my hair naturally, I found myself back in that salon chair, suffering silently with my scalp on fire.
Several years later, I finally got the courage to big chop my hair at 19. Unlike Violet, my moment was weirdly soundtracked by Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
As the film demonstrates, this is only the beginning of the natural hair journey. There’s so much that goes on inside and out during the months and years that follow that pivotal juncture where scissors meet hair. Five years later, I am still learning and unlearning so much.
This is a sensitive subject in the black community for so many reasons but one of those being that it’s incredibly hard to admit that our own parents play a large role in passing down the shame and negative feelings we have about our hair. It’s simply regarded as tradition, a subconscious symptom of Eurocentric beauty standards. Nappily Ever After did an excellent job of broaching this subject. I won’t go into it too much, but Vice wrote an interesting piece on this here.
The film also did a great job of bringing up the idea of choice in the world of black beauty — highlighting the idea that natural, relaxed, wigged, weaved, straightened or braided, a woman should be able to wear her hair how she pleases. Her hair choices should be her own, not her community’s, her workplace’s, her family’s or society’s.
While Nappily Ever After is far from a perfect film and incredibly cheesy at times, it brought up some interesting discussion points in regard to where the natural hair movement is today and what it’s going to look like for the next generation of black women. It’s refreshing to see Hollywood beginning to take part in the movement and even more refreshing to have films that tell stories about pieces of the black female experience.
Zoe’s character gives me hope that the next generation of black girls won’t have to think twice about jumping in that pool. There’s hope that they’ll be given space to do what kids do best: be kids.