Nappily Ever After is a decent enough rom-com with some stuff to say about beauty ideals, but you’ve seen it all before.
New ideas arrive few and far between, and they’re slippery, difficult things to come up with, which is why so few people do. But what’s the worry? Why obsess over new stories when we can tell old ones in fresh, compelling ways? Nappily Ever After debuted on Netflix today, and is a familiar film I hadn’t seen, adapted from a novel by Trisha R. Thomas that I hadn’t read. The story is an old one, and it isn’t told in a way that’s all that fresh or all that compelling, but I liked it well enough.
That story, it’s about a haircut. Well, sort of. The leading lady, Violet (Sanaa Lathan), is happy and successful; blessed with a boyfriend (Ricky Whittle) and a full head of hair. Then she loses those things – including the hair. It’s a metaphor, obviously, for identity and transformation, and turning over a new leaf. At first – this is all the result of a salon mishap – Violet tries to cover things up and disguise them, as people do. But eventually she shaves herself the effort. And why not?
That question is at the centre of Nappily Ever After. Why not? Violet is black, and has an overbearing mother, Paulette (Lynn Whitfield), with particular expectations about how women – particularly black women, and especially black women who happen to be her daughter – should look. So that’s one reason why not. But Violet also has a devil-may-care father, Richard (Ernie Hudson), whose eccentricities she sees as freeing and inspiring. So there’s a reason why.
The film isn’t so much about whether Violet is still beautiful without hair (she is) but about whether people can see the beauty if it isn’t styled in a way they’re comfortable with. There’s a critique in Nappily Ever After of the Eurocentric expectation that women’s hair should be long and men’s hair should be short; it’s true that some women don’t suit short hair, but it’s equally true that many men don’t suit it either – so the film’s deeper question is why any of this should matter. The conclusion is that it probably shouldn’t. I tend to agree.