#498) Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy Headed People (1984)
OR “A Natural Woman”
Directed & Written by Ayoka Chenzira
Class of 2018
Here’s a brief clip, plus an intro by Ayoka Chenzira
In my almost 4 years of this blog, I’ve covered a wide range of topics: The Vietnam War, second-wave feminism, immigration, etc. But today’s film is about the topic I may be the least qualified to discuss: Afro-textured hair. As always, I’m just here to watch the movie, and report on what I’ve seen. Please forgive me for not going into too much nuance regarding Afro-textured hair; I’m still educating myself.
The Plot: Revolutionary filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira uses animation and collages to tackle “The Hair Problem”. For decades, African-Americans were told that hair was only beautiful if it was long, smooth, and moved with the breeze. This resulted in generations of African-Americans using hot combs and products like Dixie Peach pomade to smooth out their hair. But thanks to the impact of the Black Power Movement, Chenzira suggests that African-Americans need to stop trying to meet the standards determined by White America, and let their hair do its own, natural thing.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the short “insightful and funny” and gives some historical context for Ayoka Chenzira.
But Does It Really?: Oh sure. At first glance, “Hair Piece” is on the list as representation for Ayoka Chenzira, one of filmdom’s first African-American independent filmmakers. But the film itself is an engaging time capsule of African-American hair culture and its evolution, presented in an animation style that gets the point across clearly. The unique perspective of “Hair Piece” helps it stand out and earn its place in the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Ayoka Chenzira was encouraged by her mother to pursue the arts, with Chenzira deciding on filmmaking while in high school. Chenzira’s films have covered such subjects as dance, child abuse, and hair, all from an African-American perspective. At different times, Chenzira was the director of the Black Filmmakers Foundation and Red Carnelian, two distribution companies focused on promoting films by and about African-Americans. In addition to her plethora of awards from various film committees, Ayoka Chenzira is also a professor of Women Studies, Film and Video at Spelman College.
Wow, That’s Dated: “Hair Piece” is very much a product of the Natural Hair Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which encouraged African-Americans to wear their hair naturally and help redefine what African-American hair “should” look like. As stated at the end of the film, “Hair Piece” is about African-American women letting their hair “come into the full beauty of its own rebelliousness.”
Title Track: I don’t need to recall the details here, but in regards to a certain word in the title: Fuck you Don Imus, now and forever.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Hair Piece”. 1984’s Best Animated Short Film was Canada’s “Charade” (no relation to the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn movie).
- Ayoka Chenzira was inspired to make “Hair Piece” after seeing many African-Americans walking around wearing shower caps, which she later learned was part of the Jheri curl hair process. Chenzira opted to make an animated film on the subject rather than live-action so as to avoid “finger-pointing” and highlight the differences between Eurocentric hairstyling and African-American hairstyling in a more relaxed, fun way.
- In a lovely bit of foreshadowing, when Ayoka Chenzira was growing up, her mother owned a beauty salon in their building.
- Shoutout to the film’s narrator Carol Jean Lewis, a veteran actor with five decades worth of film and theater credits, and maybe the only New York actor without a “Law & Order” credit.
- As a white male, I was trepidatious about covering this film, but Chenzira’s excellent storytelling skills put me at ease. Obviously I will never truly comprehend what it is like to have Afro-textured hair in modern America, but “Hair Piece” made me feel like I might, might, understand the subject on an elementary level.
- For a 10 minute short, this movie packs quite the soundtrack. Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown; the music rights must be trickier to clear than a Martin Scorsese film.
- Once again, I am severely under-qualified to discuss African-American hair, especially the political connotations that are still resonant, but if nothing else, researching this post reminded me of this photo of a young African-American child touching Barack Obama’s hair. Cute and innocent on the surface, powerful and important underneath.
- Callback to a previous post: “Hair Piece” received a grant from the Jerome Foundation, named after “Film Portrait” director Jerome Hill.
- Ayoka Chenzira continues to tell stories in various mediums, most recently in digital art and transmedia. One of her more recent films, 2013’s “HERadventure”, is a collaboration with her daugher Haj Chenzira-Pinnock.
- Chenzira would go on to make “Alma’s Rainbow”, one of the first full-length films to be directed, written, and produced by an African-American woman.
- I’m gonna go ahead and say that without “Hair Piece”, there is no “Hair Love”. Give credit where’s it due, internet!