By Jessica McKinney
The first time Trevor Jackson remembered seeing Black men’s hair represented in any way on screen was Gregory Hines’s medium afro in Bojangles, the 2001 biographical film about tap-dance legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The actor in particular stood out to Jackson due to his multifaceted career; his hair just so happened to be a prominent feature.
But the Grown-ish actor also admits he “never really saw much” diversity while he was growing up — either in casting, or in any “look” an actor was given. “Whenever I did see Black men, I never really saw their hair be anything other than its natural pattern,” he remembers now.
Part of that lack of diversity likely stems from the fact that, until recently, it was rare to see Black men on screen in major Hollywood projects at all, and the statistics are still dismal; a 2018 report by the UCLA College of Social Sciences found that only 12.5 percent of roles in the top films released in 2016 were portrayed by Black people. So it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario: You can’t exactly examine the nuances of Black hair, if there is no Black hair to be found.
There were, however, the bright spots: In the 1970s, Superfly was noted for its hair risks, particularly with its lead character, Youngblood Priest, who had permed hair with tapered sides. Nearly 20 years later in 1995, Living Single’s second season garnered attention for an episode in which the character Kyle Barker, played by Terrence C. Carson, wrestled with the restraints his dreaded hairstyle put on his career as a stockbroker. (In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights finally issued new guidelines that ban discrimination in the workplace, school, or public spaces, based on a person’s hair.) And Ice Cube’s Barbershop series, which originally launched in 2002, focused on the male barbershop experience and used humor to highlight the politics that conspire within that structure.
According to Khal, the Deputy Editor of Pop Culture at Complex Networks, Barbershop “definitely helped bring that aspect of black life to the culture. A barbershop is a place where you can speak freely and really deal with issues within the community.” People who have been to Black barber and beauty shops knew this before the movie came out; what changed was the way it was represented in front of a mass audience. That mainstream reflection was revolutionary at the time, and entirely bankable; the entire film franchise has since grossed over $230 million in the course of its four-movie run.
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That there is money in Black hair stories should surprise no one; a recent report put the valuation of the natural hair industry at $2.5 billion — but crucially pointed out all the ways in which mainstream brands often fail to create products that serve that audience. (That’s what happens when people who don’t know a thing about natural hair run your development labs.) Yet as more and more Black people move to wear their hair natural, or otherwise opt against the limiting mandates of white beauty standards, Hollywood is racing to keep up.
In the 1980s, Lisa Bonet and Tempestt Bledsoe wore their hair in dreads and natural updos. Though she was animated, Rugrats’s Susie Carmichael wore her afro-textured hair in three braids with barrettes. And in the years since then, characters in shows like How to Get Away With Murder and BET’s Being Mary Jane center scenes specifically on hair, as a way to emphasize an emotional character arc; the actors Viola Davis and Gabrielle Union have both removed wigs or weaves to reveal another facet of their character’s identity and emotional palette. In Netflix’s Nappily Ever After, Sanaa Lathan’s Violet cuts her long, straight hair off after her boyfriend of two years fails to propose to her. The pivotal head-shaving scene – in which Violet goes through the emotions of crying and then letting out a sigh of relief about her bald head – highlights the emotionally-rich connection she has with her hair and demonstrates the pain she feels from her failed romance.
What’s clear is that the actors who play these characters don’t take that representation lightly. “I’ve never worn an afro in any performance or for a character,” Marsai Martin, who starred in and wrote the 2019 comedy Little, told Teen Vogue. “And when I was able to create such a strong character where she can do whatever she wants, I wanted her to wear her natural hair and be confident. No one can take her down — all of that would be in her hair.”
That kind of representation also matters to Black men. “The reason why [Youngblood Priest] was so iconic was because he was such a masculine guy but he had such feminine hair,” Jackson, who played the character in the 2018 reboot, says. “You could see that abstractness in his image. He’s a pretty boy, but he’s also very monstrous when it comes to things being handled.”
There is, however, still a long way to go, for both Black women and men alike. Kathia Woods, a film and entertainment critic, points to the hair Samuel L. Jackson has worn throughout his career. “Seeing him play Nick Fury in Captain Marvel, [his wig] still looks like a peak,” she tells MTV News. “You’re looking at it and you’re like, ‘We know that’s not your hair.’ But that’s the point; we’re not supposed to be thinking that. We’re supposed to be engrossed in his character.”
Khal agrees. “It’s either the Black dude on-screen has a plain haircut or he’s looking a little bummy,” he says. “Or they just didn’t take the time to capture how this character is represented with hair.” This oversight, he adds, doesn’t often happen to white characters.
The lack of attention to detail when it comes to showcasing Black men’s hair perhaps stems from the current beauty consumer market. According to a recent study by MocoSpace, Black women drive household spending decisions; 84 percent of them buying most of the personal care and/or beauty products for their families. Additionally, 56 percent of Black women shop for hair products.
Those statistics are compounded upon by a common misconception that haircare is a woman’s pastime. According to New York entertainment critic Alfonso Francois, showcasing men’s grooming on television, or anywhere for that matter, “goes against the grain of masculinity, which is so highly revered in pop culture and society. If there’s a story about a guy’s hair journey, it’s like, OK, is that erring on the side of femininity? If it is, people aren’t interested in seeking those stories out.”
But Black men do care about grooming, both in the mainstream and in their personal lives, and they’re urging others to care too.
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“You have men that wear locs. You have men that wear braids. You have men that are bald. That requires maintenance,” Woods notes. “I think it’s just understanding that men do care about their appearance and just honing in on that.”
Whether it’s manipulated into protective styles, taking up space as an afro, cut short, or not styled at all, black men’s hair represents an extension of their identity – who they are and what they are experiencing emotionally. And some men are taking it upon themselves to break down gender boundaries and share how their hair stories can be the foundation of male character development and on-screen narratives.
“Hair represents a lot [about] an individual,” Demesio Sango, a grooming specialist based in Riverside, California, tells MTV News. “Hair has always been a representation of your individuality. It’s a part of your character, your demeanor, your being. Your hair says more about you than your dress code. Your hair says more about you than your voice.”
Black men’s hairstyles can also mark significant emotional and mental shifts in their personal lives. Just as many people manipulate their hair based on their emotional state and experiences, some Black men experiencing lows in their lives view their hair as a symbol of trauma.
“There have been times where I have been in dark places, and I didn’t want to interact with anyone, so I wouldn’t comb my hair,” Marvin, a content manager at Billionaire Boys Club in New York, explains. “I would let my beard grow wild. I’d grow the hair, but I wouldn’t keep it clean. It’s kind of like a ‘stay away’ warning.”
Justin Winley, an actor and model from Harlem, New York, once shaved his hair off during a critical moment in his life. “I was at a place where my hair felt like it was holding all of that stuff in. It was like my head was heavy,” he says now. “It felt like all of the residual, emotional stuff that I had been through in the past few months was just sitting on me. Shaving my head felt like a sort of liberation from that.”
Black men have been learning their hair textures, experimenting with styles, and incorporating hair care into their daily routines for years. Still, those practices have yet to make it to the big and small screens. So whose responsibility is it to take real, male hair stories and put them there?
“The truth is, there aren’t many black showrunners that are working right now. Obviously, it’s growing in numbers, but the majority of showrunners right now are white, so I don’t think it’s going to be on their radar,” Sumiko Wilson, a writer who works in the industry, says. “I don’t think we can tack it onto one particular person in the production process. It should funnel through everyone... If you’re going to go out of your way to cast Black characters and tell Black stories on screen, make sure you are also investing in making sure that the hair is on point. [Make] sure there are hairdressers on set that are accustomed to dealing with Black hair. And that’s such a bare minimum, but that doesn’t happen all the time.”
Jackson also noted that actors sometimes have a say in costume or hair changes depending on the role and type of movie. “If you’re the lead, you have a little more say,” he says, but adds that anyone should feel like their look helps them do their best work. “In order to carry a role or a movie, you’ve got to feel comfortable."
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And some of the control falls on the audience. “Make sure that [the box office] knows that you really fuck with this person for whatever reason,” Khal says. “If [Hollywood] sees money is being generated or funneled into a particular thing, the hope is that they are going to flock to that and add more of that into the mix.”
Of course, there are more benefits than monetary gain in seeing Black hair represented on screen. Jackson watched Prince in Purple Rain “like 20 times;” the late icon’s 1984 performance, along with Anakin Skywalker’s style in Star Wars, inspired him to grow a rat tail.
“I was like, yo, I cannot give an F about what anyone has to say about me telling my story," the actor says now. "The tail just kind of represents the growth and the ability to stand on your own two feet and say no, or say yes and have it be what I want.”