One of the vivid childhood memories I have is sitting in a salon early on Saturday morning as my mother got her hair done. It was a lengthy process that she and many other black women endured to or look a certain way. To have a hair style that made it easier to assimilate into certain spaces without having to deal with individuals randomly wanting to touch hair or deem it exotic.
Though my stints in the barber’s chair were brief by comparison, it was instilled in me from youth, much the protagonist in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Nappily Ever After, that there is a double standard when it comes to appearance. Just as my mother was always mindful of her appearance at all time, I too needed to maintain a certain standard. One that was often higher than my non-black peers.
This is one of reasons why I identified with Violet’s (Sanaa Lathan) plight in Nappily Ever After. Her journey towards self-acceptance and self-empowerment, transcended the mere notion of “girl power.” It speaks to breaking unspoken societal chains that often keep a large number of us from living life the way we want. For Violet, her whole sense of identity has unfairly been tied her appearance, specifically her hair.
From a young age her mother Pauletta (Lynn Whitfield) preached the importance of having and maintaining straight hair. Groomed to one day find both the perfect job and her prince charming, Violet’s hard work seems to pay off when it appears that her boyfriend of two years, Clint (Ricky Whittle), is finally ready to propose. However, when Clint gets her a puppy instead of a ring, Violet must face some hard truths about their relationship.
As her personal and professional life begins to spiral, Violet makes the bold choice one drunken night to chop off all her hair. Forcing herself, and those around her, to take stock of who Violet truly is.
Though Al-Mansour’s film follows a conventional romantic comedy framework, including presenting Violet with the chance of a possible future with single father Will (Lyriq Bent), whose daughter Zoe (Daria Johns) Violet forms a bond with, Nappily Ever After never loses sight of Violet’s growth. A lot of this is due to the strong performance by Lathan.
Lathan convincingly brings a lot of depth to a role that could have easily been one-note in another performer’s hands. A wonderful example of this is the scene in which Violet decides to shave her head. Al-Mansour uses the camera to substitute as Violet’s mirror, forcing the viewer to observe that vast range of emotions Lathan displays, everything from anger to joy to pain to delirium is touched on, in an unflinching way.
Thanks to Lathan’s strong work Nappily Ever After’s tale of self-discovery rises above the familiar trappings of the genre. The film is a reminder that we are not defined by our appearance or the boxes other attempt to place us in.