by Kyndall Cunningham
In Netflix’s Nappily Ever After, men determine what makes a woman “real,” and worthy.
When Netflix dropped the trailer for its latest romantic comedy Nappily Ever Afterover a month ago, I was slightly enamored and reasonably wary. Amid a robust wave of traditional rom-coms with diverse casts, Nappily felt like a purposeful throwback to the popular black films of ’90s and early aughts — The Best Man, Brown Sugar and Love And Basketball — all of which cemented the film’s star, Sanaa Lathan, as a notable romantic lead. In the first minute of the trailer, we see Lathan as a glamorous, professional woman confined to a life of perfection, and jaded by a lifelong, emotionally fraught relationship with her hair.
Framed as a woman’s path to love and liberation, the plot seemed charming, specific and, to an extent, relatable. Cut to the end of the trailer where a mature-looking gentleman, presumably a love interest, looks into Lathan’s eyes and says, “brothers like women that are real.” She smiles, affirmed by his counsel. Cut to me rolling my eyes.
I held onto that inkling as I watched the film, hoping for fully-fleshed out ideas about black womanhood, intra-racial trauma, and society’s treatment of our hair. Like any projection of marginal struggles, there’s equal opportunity for completely nailing it or getting it all wrong. But stories about black female protagonists can’t be that hard to nail in 2018, right? Wrong.
The 90-minute film follows the main character Violet on a path to self-acceptance through various stages of her hair journey. In the opening scene, she recalls the stringent hair routine her mother inflicted on her as a child — washed, conditioned, and hot combed once a week. When we catch up to her adult life, Violet is a successful marketing executive obsessed with maintaining a perfect but ultimately shallow life, not to mention her straight, shiny locks.
Things quickly go awry when her boyfriend Clint doesn’t propose to her as expected, causing her life to unravel. This leads to Violet breaking up with Clint, attempting (and failing) to makeover her image, shaving her head, and sparking a relationship with a male hairdresser, Will a.k.a Mr. “Brothers Like Women That Are Real.”
We first meet Will in a hair salon where he’s comforting a woman whose appointment gets bumped when Violet snags an emergency walk-in. Staring disappointedly in a mirror at her short, natural hair, the woman bemoans, “brothers like long hair.” Will responds with the same line, “Brothers like women that are real.”
But stories about black female protagonists can’t be that hard to nail in 2018, right? Wrong.
Cut to me rolling my eyes again. It’s a remark that’s both completely hollow and fully loaded at the same time. Are all “brothers” the same? What is “real” and “not real”? Does it matter what “brothers” think of black women’s hair? Does it matter what Will thinks? The film would argue yes. Unfortunately, this moment encapsulates Will’s entire presence on screen and the false wisdom he provides Violet as a love interest.
While he’s positioned as the antidote to her fragile, insecure life with Clint, he becomes her guiding male figure who somehow knows more about black women’s hair and what they should do with it than the black women in the film. Furthermore, he symbolizes a condescension that many black men retain when it comes to the false perception of black womanhood.
The concept of Will, as a character, feels like a joke. He’s a natural hair guru who considers himself a revolutionary at a time when the natural hair product industry is booming. Despite being a hairdresser, he doesn’t style his daughter Zoe’s hair. It isn’t until Violet strikes up an unlikely companionship with Zoe that she steps in to cornrow her hair in a maternal bonding moment, despite having no experience with natural styles, as if all black women are born knowing how to braid. None of it makes sense. But it’s the black-womanly thing to do, so she magically fills the space with no explanation.
Additionally, Will is a mansplainer. In one scene, Will and Violet get into a brief back and forth about the pervasiveness of perms in the black community, which are becoming less pervasive. When Will asks why black people, who comprise 12% of the American population, purchase 70% of all wigs and weaves. Violet replies that we, black women, hate our hair. Will agrees and argues that black women need to challenge society’s beauty norms instead of reflecting them. The conversation ends there. No talk of who created these beauty norms, no recognition of the pressure on black women to adhere to them. It’s just black women’s fault for buying into the system.
Just like Will’s character, the film assumes that black women are uniquely self-loathing. This false notion has birthed the dichotomy of the Black Queen and the Basic Female that is often touted by straight, black men in our community. A Black Queen, a rare breed, is humble, modest and embraces her natural beauty.
The latter, the majority of black women, is suffering from chronic low self-esteem and wears makeup, weaves, and risqué clothing as a result. Nappily suggests that self-hate among black women is pandemic without offering any historical and political context regarding the way our natural looks are constantly degraded under white supremacy. It does, however, offer a solution to our pain: self-love.
In her recently released book Eloquent Rage, Dr. Brittney Cooper dispels this phenomenon that is often used as a means to advise black women.
Self-help gurus, pastors and poets love to point to women’s ‘low self-esteem’ as the cause for all Black-girl problems. Just learn to love yourself, we are told. But patriarchy is nothing if not the structurally induced hatred of women. If every women and girl learned to love herself fiercely, the patriarchy would still be intact.
Additionally, the polarity of Nappily’s two love interests implies another false notion, like other black romantic films, that financially successful men are bad for black women. Violet’s relationship with Clint, a doctor, is vapid and unsatisfying while her relationship with Will, a working-class man who can’t afford a car, is spiritually fulfilling and helps her embrace “realness.” We see this trend in Tyler Perry’s work frequently.
His 2013 drama Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor is a fable about a woman who leaves her less-than-satisfying husband for a wealthy entrepreneur. As a punishment, she is beaten by her new lover and contracts HIV. In Madea’s Family Reunion, Perry illustrates another toxic relationship between the character Lisa and her abusive husband, who’s an investment banker, while the heart of the film is a romance between another woman and a poetic bus driver. In Nappily, Violet doesn’t slow down her career for either man, but Will’s lifestyle ultimately feels more grounded.
While the film overshoots the emotional confinement black women have to their hair, it significantly underplays the way black women support each other. The second most endearing counsel Violet receives on her makeover and breakup from Clint is from her father. At no point in the film does her marriage-obsessed mother express any empathy for her daughter’s life unravelling. And Violet’s girlfriends (one is black with natural hair) might as well be cardboard cutouts. In one scene, at an all-women group therapy session, where a homegirl intervention is likely to occur, Violet is simply told to “own” her shaven head by the group’s leader, and the scene ends abruptly.
Ultimately, Nappily’s ideas of liberation are too male-driven to upend any of society’s expectations of black women. Its hazy narrative attempts to define “realness” as a lack of physical adornment rather than self-actualization. In the end, Violet feels free from her tiresome facade, but it’s men who define where her true happiness lies. In reality, the biggest comfort of being a black woman with black hair is the experience you share with other black women. Nappily would be a much better film if it contained stronger female bonds and acknowledged the romance within our community of women who share care tips, experiment with different looks and uplift each other’s hairstyles, whatever they may be.