What was lost in Nappily Ever After’s journey from book to film
In a pivotal scene in the new Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a slighted and scheming little girl, Zoe (brilliantly portrayed by Dario Jones), switches out conditioner for chemical relaxer at the salon where the main character, Violet, is getting her hair done. It’s the first in a series of mishaps that leads Violet (Sanaa Lathan) to her “big chop,” the much talked-about scene in which she cuts off all her hair. The shedding of chemically relaxed hair is a metaphor for Violet’s journey to self-acceptance.
Black audience members are asked to suspend disbelief long enough to forget the harsh smell of chemical relaxers — a smell like spoiled eggs — that would have immediately revealed the subterfuge to any shampoo girl worth her salt. I didn’t mind such a suspension. If it works for the story, I thought, it works for me. After all, I’d been waiting for this story to make it to the screen since I read Trisha R. Thomas’ 2000 debut novel on which the movie is based. But the relaxer that smells too strong to ignore is the concoction the movie slathers onto American history until the roots of Violet’s malaise lie limp and all that is left is her mother’s uncontextualized investment in a Eurocentric standard of beauty. In a digital age, it seems old-fashioned to say that the book explains it better, but it did.
As I was reading Nappily in 2000, I was also delving deeper into bell hooks’ cultural criticism, learning critical literacy through her model of the feminist film review. One such review probably shapes the way I read Nappily today: When hooks wrote about the film version of Waiting to Exhale in Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (1996), she warned about the dangers of translation. According to hooks, the details lost (and added) in the journey from Terry McMillan’s novel to Forest Whitaker’s directorial debut were erased, in part, because of White supremacist notions of what Black womanhood should be.
A similar erasure happens in Netflix’s version of Thompson’s novel, and I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood screenwriters think America's nappy roots are better left unpicked. Case in point: Violet’s mama. Although I don’t know much about Cee Marcellus, one of the credited screenwriters for Nappily, I am familiar with the work of Adam Brooks, the Canadian co-screenwriter most famous for writing Definitely Maybe (2008). Perhaps Brooks had no reference point for the Black American mama — patron saint of the historically damned.
The film’s (perhaps unintentional) damnation of Violet’s mother reminds me of the oft-repeated lesson of my Howard University screenwriting professor, who taught me the importance of character development: “Nobody just wakes up crazy!” In Nappily, Lynn Whitfield’s character seems to do just that, waking up crazy in the late ’90s to obsess over her daughter’s perfection without a history that would explain her underlying fears. Whitfield embodies the surface charm of a Jack and Jill devotee, a subscriber to classist divisions between “us” (doctors, lawyers, engineers) and “them” (blue-collar workers who aren’t allowed to socialize with “us”). Although members of the Black middle class often find themselves the mark of scathing cultural criticism in literature (from E. Franklin Frazier to Margo Jefferson), the systems that make them see proximity to Whiteness as the only safe zone are seemingly ignored in their on-screen portrayals. A student of African American history wouldn’t need to ask the question the movie demands: Why do Black women feel the way they feel about their hair?
Instead of answering this question, the movie puts the onus of natural-texture acceptance on the shoulders of the disallowed. For example, the film opens with a scene in which little Violet is forbidden from swimming with White children at a party while an adult Violet judges her mother’s actions in a voice-over. But who really kept little Violet out of that pool? A Southern mother whose vanity caused her to forbid any fun that would undo the work of her hot comb, or a Southern mother whose memory was long enough to shudder at the possibilities of racial violence? When Will (Lyric Bent), Zoe’s hairstylist father, refers to Harriet Tubman as a deliverer from the slavery of hair maintenance, I winced at the missed opportunity to explain why Black Moses covered her own hair when she was enslaved. Her natural naps were not an affront to an obsessive mother; she and other enslaved women were required to cover their hair so as not to offend their captors. This genesis of hair shame is hidden in a movie about a woman’s journey toward loving her own nappy hair.
Perhaps timing is the unforeseen factor that shifts the blame from American history to the shoulders of Violet’s mama. The movie, after all, is based on a book written nearly 20 years prior to its production. In 2000, Venus (the novel’s lead) is 34. In 2018, Violet is 30. Venus would have been 10 in 1976, making her mother’s devotion to the hot comb more believable. On the other hand, Violet would have been 10 in 1998, long after the hot comb had been stored away in favor of the “creamy crack” that made straight styles easier but also made straightened strands more vulnerable to the chlorine in public pools. In 1998, Violet’s mother may have been more concerned with Violet’s hair falling out than its turning back/Black.
These details don’t bug me. After all, the film adaptation must necessarily erase much of the information in its muse. Internal monologue, backstory, family history, and the steamiest parts of sex scenes often end up on the figurative cutting floor. What’s left is usually a simpler story that relies on the physical chemistry of its leads to make up for all the things a bookish viewer might miss. Although Lathan and Bent had amazing chemistry, their budding relationship may have done more to obscure than reveal the roots of Black hair culture. Will, who is developing his own natural hair care line, is the character who voices the remnants of Thomas’ original hair politics. Before Violet’s mishap, she witnesses Will comforting another client who feels insecure about her own “big chop.” He tells her that “brothers” want “someone who’s real.” His advice to this client, his protection of his daughter’s right to her own hair texture, and his role in Violet’s journey frame the natural hair phenomenon as a personal evolution to self-acceptance. Will’s wisdom casts a thick fog over Black women’s past and present struggles for acceptance from people other than themselves. There is no mention of the systems that make Black hair a matter of public policy. Instead, the main culprit of hair shame in this movie is Violet’s mother, and I’m wondering how so much got lost in translation.
What could use a little more translation (for the global audience) is the history of anti-Black racism that fuels and funds the contemporary hair care industry. Violet’s love interest hopes to help Black women embrace their natural hair with his plant-based products. SheaMoisture, a Black-owned, organic beauty brand, purportedly started with the same intentions, then ended up making marketing moves from the playbooks of companies like Miss Jessie’s and Kinky Curly. If ad campaigns are any indicator, all three companies seem to agree that loose curls are the ideal that all Black women should strive for, no matter how their hair naturally grows from their scalps. Nappy hair is erased and replaced with Miss Jessie’s SilkeningTM treatment, which “turns kinks [a synonym for naps] to curls” with sodium hydroxide. Similarly, by the time you shellac your “very kinky” hair with Kinky Curly’s leave-in conditioner, then custard, the dash between “kinky” and “curly” may as well be an elevator that plays The Jeffersons theme (“Movin’ On Up”) on repeat. And these are reportedly Black-owned companies. The White-owned hair companies that have only recently developed “natural” product lines (e.g., Pantene, Dark and Lovely, Crème of Nature) seem to have overheard Black women complain about “managing” their hair and then applied the antebellum overseer interpretation of the word. Peruse the aisle of any “natural” section in a chain like Sally’s or CosmoProf, and you’ll find fighting words on the backs of brightly colored jars and bottles — promises to “tame,” “subdue,” “combat,” and “control” “wild” hair. Ironically, the word that spurred Thomas to write her nine-book series (Nappily Ever After has eight sequels so far) is erased from natural hair care products altogether — nappy.
No wonder Netflix took its cue from the hair care industry and tamed America’s roots. One can only hope that Netflix will commit to Violet’s character as she follows Venus’s nappy trail. Perhaps a sequel could explore the evolution of natural hair care marketing that is portrayed in its idealistic inception at this movie’s end.
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