‘Nappily Ever After’ director, Haifaa al-Mansour, might have intended to tell a story of the pressures African-American women face in trying to conform to prescribed beauty standards but often deviates and missed the mark.
‘The Netflix romcom is an adaptation of Trisha R. Thomas’s book of the same title. And the screenwriters use straight long hair as a metaphor for a perfect black woman.
Sanaa Lathan plays lead, Violet Jones. Violet is a thirty-something year old advertising executive. Not only does Violet have a successful career, she’s dating a black woman’s “dream” boyfriend – handsome doctor, Clint Conrad (Ricky Whittle). But she’s also a perfectionist. Her mother, Paulette Jones (Lynn Whitfield) created an image which Violet works hard to uphold. Her hair is straightened and make-up done before Clint gets out of bed. She won’t even let go during sex for fear of ruining her “perfect” hair.
Violet’s world is turned upside down when Clint gives her a puppy on her birthday rather than an engagement ring – which she hoped for. She gets a makeover to prove that she can let her hair down and attempts to go wild on a night out but fails at it. Not even getting drunk could make her pain go away. Devastated and drunk, Violet gets a clipper and shaves her head.
‘Nappily Ever After’ shares the plight of many black women – even African women. Their confidence is tied to their appearance. Underneath the straight long hair or weaves, false lashes and make-up are women who are unaware of who they truly are. Much like Violet, they are successful, organised and homely but none of those great attributes matter. They believe the only way to attract and keep a man is to look “perfect”.
But is ‘Nappily Ever After’ really about the pressures of beauty standards?
Screenwriters, Adam Brooks and Cee Marcellus, intend to tell a well-meaning story based on social pressures, and do so for most of the movie. The women portrayed in Violet’s advertising campaigns, her lost confidence after going bald, Clint asking her to straighten her hair for her meeting with his parents, and when she said Paulette taught her to “be the girl the guy wants”, are all indicative of this. Sadly, the dialogue which led to Violet and Clint’s break-up stirs the movie away from the central message.
Clint told Violet,
“… I had to ask your assistant what your favourite flowers were, your favourite wine, your favourite music. You are talking about getting married and I don’t even know you. … you never let your hair down, we go to a party you don’t dance, you don’t drink, we never just go buck-wild in the the shower or acted silly together, you never take a chance because you’ve always got to be perfect. 24/7 perfection is like being on a two-year first date.”
Clint’s statement suggest that he wanted more spontaneity and vulnerability. A woman who allowed herself to be occasionally caught off-guard, not always in control. Will Wright (Lyriq Bent), a natural hair stylist who Violet dated briefly after her break-up with Clint, sums it up when he told Violet that “what brothers want is a woman who is real”.
Violet also sends conflicting messages. At the end of the movie, we’re still unsure about know who she is. At the engagement party, she complained about her heels, “I can’t put those heels back on but if I don’t, I can’t be perfect”. But in the next scene she’s strutting in high heels. Paulette might have been the proponent of her perfectionism, but it seems like wearing heels is now Violet’s thing. She only chose the wrong pair for the engagement party. So it is unfair of her to say she wasn’t herself.
Despite the muddled up messages, there is the very strong message about self love which we takeaway. Violet shaving her head might be the most profound scene in the movie but we get the most profound message in the scene where Violet unknowingly goes to a support group meeting for cancer survivors. The leader of the group tells her, “if you walk around like that, of course you’ll get ignored. You gotta own it”. That was a light bulb moment.
‘Nappily Ever After’ is streaming on Netflix.
Image: Photo: Vulture/ Tina Rowden / Netflix
Directed by: Haifaa al-Mansour
Cast includes: Sanaa Lathan, Ernie Hudson, Lyriq Bent, Lynn Whitfield, Ricky Whittle, and Camille Guaty.