Six years ago, Haifaa al-Mansour became the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda, about a 10-year-old girl whose desire to ride a bike is met with near-unanimous opposition, was filmed, occasionally in secret, during the country’s 35-year ban on movie theaters. (The prohibition was lifted earlier this year, with a screening of Black Panther kicking off a new era of Saudi Arabian film culture.) In the meantime, al-Mansour has followed up her BAFTA-nominated feature debut with two feminist-themed projects: a tepidly received 2017 biopic about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning and, now, the earnest Netflix romantic comedy Nappily Ever After.
Al-Mansour is both a natural and highly imperfect pick to adapt Trisha R. Thomas’ novel. Nappily Ever After opens with its thirtysomething protagonist, Violet (played as an adult by Sanaa Lathan and as a child by Gabrielle Manning), as an 11-year-old girl at a pool party, forbidden by her mother (Lynn Whitfield) from getting in the water lest her straightened hair curl into its natural state. Violet jumps in anyway, and several white children promptly make fun of the “Chia Pet” on top of her head. In both Wadjda and Nappily Ever After, girls are never free of gendered pressures, and mothers are complicit in pushing their daughters into socially desirable molds of femininity. (These mothers may not agree with patriarchy’s decrees, but they recognize the institution’s potential for punishing wayward women.) But three decades of pursuing perfection has left Violet a gorgeous shell of a person, with nary a hot-combed hair out of place, as well as an entitled jerk when she doesn’t receive the rewards she believes her beauty owes her—namely, an engagement to Clint (Ricky Whittle), the doctor she’s been dating for two years.
So far, so universal. But Nappily Ever After, as its title suggests, is also about a black woman’s journey toward embracing herself and her hair—so much so that her obligatory second love interest, Will (Lyriq Bent), is a hairdresser. Is single dad Will—whose last name is Wright—always meant to be right? A natural hair advocate who compares straightening black hair to “putting down an animal,” he evinces an evangelist’s manic zeal in his attempts to convert Violet to the gospel of nonrelaxed curls. When he spots a near-bald Violet after she shaves her head in a drunken fugue—more on this later—he asks, a little too self-importantly, “Didn’t the hum of the clippers sound like Harriet Tubman calling you to freedom?” To the end, Nappily Ever After is ambivalent about Will’s boosterism, which leaves the film with a self-aware twist on the rom-com template but also with the feeling that the director might not know exactly what she wants to say about her story’s central topic.
It’s not that a nonblack filmmaker categorically cannot tell Violet’s story. A powerful scene in which our blotto protagonist shears off her unwanted hair experiment—Lathan mowing down her tresses in close-up—is easily the movie’s emotional and visual centerpiece. Lathan laughs, and cries, and can’t stop looking at herself in the mirror. We’re happy for Violet’s cathartic purge—a change that’s been in the making pretty much all her life—but also more than a little worried: It’s 100 percent guaranteed she’ll regret her impulsive act in the morning, if she even remembers it. (The first thing Violet does when she wakes up: She screams. A lot.)
Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, but Nappily Ever After appears to have become a conversation piece as soon as it was released on Friday. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s been widely embraced. The #NappilyEverAfter hashtag, for instance, reveals many passionate partisans both pro and con. Black critics, meanwhile, have noted that the film feels about a decade too late for the natural hair movement and have criticized Hollywood’s overreliance of natural hair as a metaphor for authenticity. Not mincing words, Vulture writer Angelica Jade Bastién pilloried the film’s “reductive understanding of black womanhood.”
Though broad and unsubtle, Nappily Ever After isn’t without several notable assets. It features an assured and emotionally complex performance from Lathan, who imbues Violet with personality and prickliness even when Adam Brooks and Cee Marcellus’ screenplay fails her. Atlanta looks lush and inviting bathed in cinematographer Alar Kivilo’s warm light. A chaste but intensely erotic scene in which Will gives Violet the one touch she’d never allowed herself to enjoy—a scalp massage, in public, no less—should alone assure the film’s place in some kind of rom-com pantheon. Most saliently, Violet’s gradual realization that she’s been taught to please others rather than develop her selfhood—and her corresponding longing for the freedom that Will’s preteen daughter, Zoe (newcomer Daria Johns), enjoys—is empathetically balanced by compassion for the older women whose strict enforcement of gender roles originates from (self-)protective instincts.
Straightened hair isn’t the only way Violet is taught to be ladylike. She also learns from her mother to smile and to never complain, even when her stilettos are cutting into the back of her feet. At a party thrown in her honor, she refuses food. These details suggest that an obsession with hair is to al-Mansour as much a symbol of gendered oppression—one of the countless ways women are told to monitor their behavior and appearance—as it is a distinct issue millions are contending with every day. Is Nappily Ever After cinematic nourishment meant for all women, or an outsider’s fumbled attempt at making a culturally specific and highly sensitive subject accessible to a wider audience? Your individual answer might depend on whether you see society’s treatment of black hair as a symbol of something larger or as an issue that’s all too big in itself.