Pegged as a bildungsroman or a rom-com gone wrong, Nappily Ever After marks the latest of inclusionary narratives that afford black actors a check and the black collective the illusion of progress. The Netflix rom-com appears to include the black woman into the fairy tale genre. What happens, of course, is that black characters remain anchored in European caricatures.
NEA tells the partial story of Violet Jones, a beautiful ad executive relentlessly pursuing western standards of personal validation in beauty and romance. After her boyfriend fails to propose, Violet shaves her head and embarks on an unexpected journey of self-discovery. Well, this is what the film would have viewers believe has taken place by the time the credits roll. In fact, little to no self-discovery actually takes place. What Violet does discover by the film’s end is a new way to exist in a white supremacist system in a black female body.
Violet’s western influence offsets her espousal to the western concept of woman as well, a concept consummated in what she desires most—marriage. Though Violet seemingly comes full circle by the film’s end, what the film never articulates is that Violet sought marriage to assert her worth to the world. The film ignores that for the black woman this worth is less about asserting their value as women and more about asserting themselves as women.
The same praxis of oversimplification and oversight dominates much of the reviews surrounding the film. NEA exposes white publications as putting their black writers to the task of acknowledging a film white writers simply cannot tackle without unveiling their own racism and ignorance. These black writers are a lot like Violet in their espousal to western influence and desire to occupy hegemonic space with a pseudo-revolutionary flare that possesses just enough seasoning to fulfill their employers’ diversity initiative. These reviews acknowledge the film’s shallow portrayal but fail to pose the necessary critical queries to move blackness beyond superficiality.
Nevertheless, the premise of the film is a provocative one lost in Netflix’s demands for black portrayal. These demands are of course that blackness remains incidental and not central enough to deter white viewership. Netflix, like every other white platform, proceeds with the objective to ensure whites remain entertained by those who enable their privilege.
Thus, the film illuminates a general issue in representing the black body. Aligned with a shallow portrayal that aligns the black person with superficial anecdotes to detail their systemic influence, the film’s characters approach depth in what escapes the casual viewer. For example, viewers get a glimpse into Violet’s childhood in an opening scene where her pressed hair reverts to the amusement of her white playmates. This single scene functions as the film’s core despite providing little context. What this scene does is project Violet as raised in vanity and not amidst the violence of white supremacy. This is, of course, deliberate, as to layer the black person is to expose the non-physical violence of white influence.
Can Nappy ever be Happy?
The film’s espousal to western influence is also evident in the film’s title, “Nappily Ever After.” Though I acknowledge that many within the black collective now claim “nappy,” the term reflects a European gaze on black hair. Black hair isn’t nappy, its hair. So in order to attain the ending the film’s title references, it is essential to move past this crippling western gaze that consistently douses black portrayal in various manifestations of anti-blackness. To place “nappy” in the film’s title reveals that the objective is not to move blacks from the western gaze, but cast black bodies on a visual plantation that manifests on the big and small screen.
Men In Black
Though pegged as condescending by some viewers, Will is the most enlightened character in the film. Viewers first meet Will when he is confidently praising the natural beauty of a black woman reluctant to accept this truth. His attraction to Violent grows after she shaves her hair as her hairless state reflects his ambitions for the black female collective.
In fact, all the enlightenment in the film comes from black men. After Violent shaves her head, it is her father that refutes the idea that this was something that she “did on a whim.” This is one of the film’s few redeeming moments but it operates without development. Interestingly, the two black men who prove a bridge to heightened consciousness though utterly lonesome throughout the film.
Richard Jones, Violet’s father, recently left her mother and his career to pursue a career as a print model. His new career gains him a list of female admirers but a series of scornful looks from his estranged wife. Will, on the other hand, is espoused to the black female experience both professionally and personally as a single father to daughter Zoie and professionally as a salon owner inherited from his mother. Though both men seem to “get the girl” by the end of the film, the film’s portrayal of the good black man espoused to the background is ironically pushed to the film’s background. This discourse connects to another fact the movie glosses over: your hair affects who you attract.
In Violet’s case, both men she attracts are highly feminized in their portrayal. Violet, with long, straight hair attracts a vain Clint, who though a doctor, proves to be unapologetically shallow. Specifically, he complains that Violet is too perfect, but demands this perfection upon their reunion. Perfect, a term used throughout the film means “whiteness.” Clint’s vanity depicts him as highly effeminate, as does Will’s espousal to conventionally feminine rolls as a mom and dad, gardener, and his profession—a hairdresser.
Violet with a shaved head or short new growth, attracts Will, a rugged black man who has dedicated his life to a natural black aesthetic. Will’s mission to change the world “one head at a time,” reconciles the false linearity between unprocessed hair and unprocessed mind—illustrating his plight to heal the soul of a lost queen through her crown.
Will’s character possesses a sort of gender hybridity that in analysis proves revolutionary. Specifically, Will depicts an espousal between the black man and woman, depicting racial evolution as transcending western gender constructs in necessity.
However, under the conventional umbrella of gender, under which this film operates, making this depiction another attempt to portray the black man as effeminate.
The Diabolical Black Female Dame
Though seemingly a narrative about black female liberation, the depicts its enlightened black male as birthed from black female scorn. This praxis counters the film as an ally to black feminity and exposes the film as stealthy assassinating black female character. After Violet shaves her head, her father remarks that he knows what she’s going through “probably better than anyone.” Mr. Jones, who goes from insurance to modeling, and Violet who goes from long-haired to bald—appeared as victims of Mrs. Jones. Similarly, Will, though enlightened, functions as a victim of the black woman who left both him and his daughter. This depiction though buried in the film’s background, depicts the black woman as diabolical and the catalyst for black pain. This is, of course, a false notion that is most poisonous in its attack on the black subconscious.
Waiting to Exhale Part II?
Violent’s head shaving mirrors what viewers witnessed in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. The scene to which I refer is where Bernadette cuts her long-thick mane into a short, sleek cut after her husband leaves her for a white woman. Like Violet, Bernadette assisted her significant other on his rise to the top. Both women chop their locks in response to the disappointment engendered in their dealings with black men. This depiction portrays black men and women as inharmonious. Additionally, given that both disappointments occur with regard to marriage–there is a violent implication that black women are incompatible with marriage. This hair removal process also implies that whether vows are broken or taken, the black man will fail the black woman and ultimately prompt her to shed her vanity. Vanity, of course, composes the core of western femininity; thus, the black woman’s detachment from conventional beauty is not about beauty at all. Rather, this depiction subtly proclaims the black female as less than a woman in her involvement with black men. Conclusively, the parallel between the film adaptation of Terry McMillan and Trisha Thomas’s books reveals that the black woman is still very much waiting to exhale.
Perhaps the most disappointing component of the film is the underdeveloped mother-daughter relationship between Violet and Mrs. Jones. Although viewers learn from Violent’s aunt that Mrs. Jones’s mother did not straighten Mrs. Jones’s hair out of exasperation, this does little to alleviate her from the role of this film’s villain. NEA portrays Mrs. Jones as unrelentlessly superficial and preoccupied with what others think. Mrs. Jones as irretrievably vain throughout the film rather than indoctrinated with an ideology chosen for her by the systemic forces that dictate her path.
This is also what viewers witness with waiting to exhale with Savannah’s relationship with her meddling mother. Savannah’s mom pushes her daughter into the arms of a married man because, in her mother’s eyes, to be with a married man is better than being alone. Similarly, Mrs. Jones pushes her daughter into a life of western perfection to ensure that she receives the best of the white world. What both women fail to realize is their espousal to western standards sets both them and their children up for failure. Western standards are for western women, not women westernized by colonialism. The issue I have with both portrayals is that they attempt to Americanize the displaced African. Most portrayals of black women in popular culture are of “women” who happen to be black. This is perhaps most obvious in Violet’s relationship with Clint, where they both observe a Negropean lifestyle—or are black people living a western/white lifestyle. Thus, Clint’s desire for Violet to straighten her hair at their engagement party illustrates that his proposal was not for Violet to marry him, but for them both to marry western standards/ideals.
Zoie, Picaninny Caricature
When viewers first meet Zoie, she is dressed in oversized clothes, her hair tossled with speech and knowledge way beyond her years. Though a beautiful young girl, her image is reminiscent of the picaninny caricature which depicts the black child as unkempt to reflection the discordance of black upbringing. Viewers soon learn that Zoie is motherless and her appearance reflects a single-dad household. Her appearance seems Mitch-matched to a male hairdresser and gardener who takes pride in natural beauty but struggles to do his daughter’s hair until the film’s ending.
As viewers learn more about Zoe, it becomes obvious that her appearance reflects that of a young girl who has accepted her “unprettiness,” not that of a young girl who exists beyond vanity. This also appears mitch-matched, that a precocious black girl groomed by a father espoused to natural beauty would be only superficially confident.
Zoe reflects what happens to little girls in deficient of a female role model. This portrayal ignores the communal reality that no black girl or boy is ever truly mother or fatherless. Again, the movie showcases the detriment of single-parent households, overlooking the power of the black community.
A Processed Mind
The last scene in the film when Violet pitches Will’s natural care line to a businessman who sells to the unnatural woman, functions almost as an apology to the black female viewer. This scene seems to state that after a visual discourse on a black woman’s journey to natural “it doesn’t matter how you wear your hair.” It of course does matter how one wears their hair, as whites and non black persons of color accumulate generational wealth in capitalizing off this implanted insecurity.
The film’s ending also delineates what lies at the core of all black female hair styling—money. When asked why sell a product that seems to “undercut” what they already sell, Violet says, “Women can wear weaves if they want to, they can straighten their hair… its a choice.” Choice is an interesting word choice. If the film does nothing, it depicts the marketing world as a tool of white supremacy that makes choices for its targeted consumer. Whether the black woman wears her hair natural, straight, dyed, or opts to purchase a weave or wig, she is a target of a white world who wishes to capitalize on her consumerism. Even as an ad executive, Violet is a consumer—depicting that the core of colonialism is being a product of consumption while being collectively consumed. So while the oppressor’s eating of the other remains a topic of contention, the film illustrates the other’s conception of its collective corpse under the guise of representation.
NEA is a nuanced assimilatory narrative that appears to embrace blackness but actualizes black exploitation. To be completely honest, this film seems about fifteen to twenty years late. The epidemic of wigs and weaves that dominate much of black female styling today makes the straightening of natural hair a far lesser evil, if not nearly obsolete.
NEA portrays black women and hair straightening as dimensionally. Violet and her mother’s relationship remains solely vested in superficiality and her natural best friend remains restricted to the film’s background. The portrayal attempted in this film would greatly benefit from a layered portrayal of black beauty that encompasses the reality that many black women wore braids as children and straightened their hair as a right of passage. Hair straightening in the black community often occurs with the cognitive dissonance of “adulthood” or “practicality” that personifies a stealth alignment American beauty standards. In another breath, I do look at films or social commentary that challenge black behavior with the query: why are there are little to no films/novels about white women and tanning, dying, limp plumping, or hair straightening? Or better yet, why are white and “mixed race” women who for centuries were praised for their distance from black aesthetics now praised for paying for the curves many black women are born with? I ask these questions not to compare the black female and white woman experience, but to note that much of western society critiques black women for behaviors performed in a cult-like fashion by our oppressors who though functionally beautiful are on a quest to have what the black woman is born with. The crooked path of white and non-black woman to possess black beauty remains an untold story, because the myth of black female insecurity or “ugliness,” is necessary to uphold western ideology.
Nevertheless, NEA, though a dissonant display of black female consciousness, does not tackle the complexities that veil the black pursuit of beauty as encompassing a functional ugliness. Instead, its portrayal is as vain and shallow as its characters. Whites and other non-black persons of color are able to extract symbolic profit from a film that implies black female insecurity and ignores the reality that beauty world remains anchored in the white woman’s quest for color. Black audiences feel “Seen” through a visual narrative that consummates victory in showing viewers what mediocre storytelling and direction cannot incite viewers to feel.
Black Power ❤