I readily admit that I approached Netflix’s new original film “Nappily Ever After” with skepticism. I recall rolling my eyes when it first appeared on my Netflix home screen - the word “nappily” on a platform with a decided dearth of Black television and film seemed like self-unaware pandering at best. However, the hopeless romantic and naturalista within me didn’t allow me to skip the film entirely - I love a good rom-com, and I couldn’t resist a Black leading lady.
While star Sanaa Lathan’s efforts are admirable, several elements of the script alienate the real Black female hair experience in ways that are almost comical. Viewers are supposed to be convinced that a grown woman in her 30s is helpless when it comes to her hair, relying on her mother’s heroic flat-ironing efforts to methodically erase any evidence of a kink. And, while she does cycle through various styles before her big chop, Violet seems to have no awareness of natural hair resources that are nowadays one Google search away. Surely her loose curls were one YouTube tutorial from a sleek bun or simple updo.
Beyond that removal from reality, the trajectory of the film is transparent from the beginning. The purposeful dichotomy between saccharine self-love advocate Will (Lyriq Bennet) and shallow commitment-phobe Clint (Ricky Whittle) plays tiredly on the idea that a woman’s evolution comes only at the hands of the men in her life. How often will onscreen men imply that helpless Black women don’t know to just “love themselves” without acknowledging a society that does not actually love Black women as themselves? Besides, the idea that Black women - especially those who chemically alter their hair or wear protective styles - are inherently self-hating is not only trite, but objectively untrue.
Dr. Kelly L. Patterson, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, writes that Black women consistently report higher levels of self-esteem than do their White counterparts. Black women actually find their support systems in other Black women who “validate [their] experience[s], perspective[s], and feelings.” Within those social networks, Black women find counters to negative racial and discriminatory stressors. As Black researchers have reported for years, Black women do not seek esteem out of proximity to White women, and are actually instilled with a resilient self-love from their communities. If anything, Violet suffers from a lack of support.
Overall, “Nappily Ever After” fails where it sacrifices lived experiences for over-simplified stereotypes. As Violet leaps into the pool, free at last, the viewer is clearly supposed to smile with the relief that a smart, educated, beautiful woman finally loves herself because an argan oil-armed man - who will never be caught in the intersection of race, femininity, and beauty - told her she should. Hair is really only the tip of the iceberg of Violet’s issues, and no dip in the pool will solve that. While filmmakers did allow for some moving images - the shaving session was refreshing - the script itself is too focused on using hair as metaphor for freedom. Had the film opened itself up to critiques of Black female socialization, maybe Violet’s awakening would have made more sense. Otherwise, the plot is just too simple to handle the weight. To filmmakers: give Black women’s stories the nuance and attention they deserve.