A story of dread and drama; Film: The documentary, 'Nappy,' seemed to resonate with African-American women who saw it last week at the Fells Point Creative Alliance.


OK, so just about every woman hates her hair.

And in all its unliberated glory, female hair talk often is still filled with drama and intrigue. A new mousse! A different color? How to deal with that stubborn flip that happens no matter how much gel and heat are applied?

Now multiply all the curling iron angst and blow-dried fretting by about 1,000, says Takoma Park-based filmmaker Lydia Douglas, and you might begin to understand the stress level of most black women when it comes to hair.

You have doubts? Then check out the dead-heat sprint of a black woman with a fresh, $100 'do caught in the wind or rain.

Even in three-inch heels she can suddenly look like Jackie Joyner-Kersey.

Honey, hair is serious.

So "Nappy," a documentary by Douglas about black women and their hair, taps into a subject brimming with emotion.

"Nappy" came to Baltimore for the first time last week, the first event of the Fells Point Creative Alliance in its new Thames Street performance space called the Ground Floor. From the nods and gasps of laughter from the packed crowd, it was evident that Douglas' film struck a chord.

"If you're a black woman, you have hair drama, no matter who you are," Douglas says. "Even if it's not kinky, then you have this, 'You're not black enough' or 'That's not real.' ... Because beauty is associated with looking like a white woman, and people don't want to admit it."

At a time when minority fashion models and such role models as U.S. Open Champion Serena Williams (who, with her sister Venus, wears white-beaded cornrows) are an increasing pop culture presence, "Nappy" explores the undercurrents of a maturing, multicultural aesthetic of beauty in America.

To its credit, the film goes far beyond the good hair-bad hair debate ("good" hair typically referring to straight locks) to supply in just 30 minutes enough rich detail and straight-up truth to be a refreshing, on-point slice of black life.

Against background sounds of African drumming and reggae, "Nappy" features intimate interviews and Afrocentric proselytizing by African-American women who wear their hair in dreadlocks, Afros or cornrowed braids. ("Nappy" refers to natural African hair, unstraightened by chemical relaxers or hot combs.) Interpersed are images of hair-tending and montage close-ups of kinky hair -- all shot in black-and-white.

The results are sometimes hilarious ("I never had a Jheri Kurl!" pledges Mieka Hansard, a 20ish woman, with an emphatic wag of her head), and often informative. For instance, Marsha Jean Darling, a professor of African-American studies at Georgetown University, discusses the "African- centered liberation movements" in the 1960s that helped make natural hair popular and black beautiful.

Ultimately, "Nappy" is a portrait of the reverberations -- from self-empowerment to shame -- that come when a black woman chooses to wear her hair naturally.

As the filmmaker herself, who currently sports a short Afro, admits on camera, "The first time I dreaded my hair, all hell broke loose." (Dreadlocks form when kinky hair is uncombed.)

Her mother, she explains later, "felt like it was a reflection on her. If I walked around with my hair uncombed, then she was a bad mother. She said it looked like Africans -- and she associated that with dirty, uneducated and running around like a fool."

Similarly, says interviewee Dera Thompkins, when she went natural, her mother was "in tears."

"The discussion was that I had lost my beauty," she said. "I had changed everything that they had spent years building in my life."

Douglas says she carefully picked the film's interview subjects because she wanted it to be a supportive vehicle for "healing and transformation" for black women who have gone natural, or are considering it.

"This is a propaganda film," she says with a chuckle. "I have an agenda."

As part of that agenda, Douglas says she is hoping the film will inspire black women to spend the first week of the new year with natural hair.

Douglas -- who for years had dreadlocks -- is used to hearing a range of reactions to her video, first released in 1997 as her master's degree project from Howard University's Masters in Fine Arts in Film. She's been fine-tuning the editing and promoting it ever since.

Now, she is raising money to reproduce it on film and enter it into festivals around the country. The Fells Point showing helped raise a good chunk of cash, but no other showings of the film are yet scheduled in Baltimore, she said.

But for the Fells Point crowd of about 100 -- a mix of black and white people sporting every sort of hairstyle -- "Nappy's" message seemed to hit home.

"All right now!" came a voice from the back of the screening room when a woman with long, curly dreadlocks said on-screen that she "no longer wanted to bear the expense, the pain and suffering of straightening my hair."

There were claps and howls of laughter when another interviewee wrapped a towel over her kinky hair and flipped her head to and fro, mimicking herself as a child who wanted long hair "like Diana Ross or Cher."

There were murmurs of affirmation as Fran Tall, a white woman with an adopted black daughter, told Douglas: "When I brought Allison home I wasn't aware that her hair would be this much different from mine. ... And I also wasn't fully aware of the culture that went into African-American women's hair."

After the screening, Farah Mendlesohn, a Jewish white woman visiting from Reading, England, said the film reminded her of all the flak she caught as a child about her naturally curly hair. "It was very similar to all the stories in the film. I never felt it was beautiful. I straightened it."

For many at the screening, the most enjoyable part of "Nappy" was the simple homage it pays to the intimacy of hair tending in African cultures.

In a series of scenes, a child starts off in the bathtub getting her hair washed, then sits at her mother's knee, talking and singing for hours as she gets her hair braided.

In another scene, a man clips his girlfriend's short Afro; her eyes closed, a towel around her shoulders, she lets her bowed head rock to the rhythm of his clippers, almost as if she were getting a massage.

"When you've got someone between your legs and you're working the hair, that's something," said Sheri Parks, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and the moderator of a discussion after the film. "There is this sensuousness of touching someone's hair."

For more information about "Nappy," call Lydia Douglas at (301) 891-3490 or e-mail her at pzhead@yahoo.com.

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