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Commentary TV and Movies

Nappily Ever After on Netflix gets to the root of my black experience

Commentary: The streaming service is putting real effort into telling stories that resonate with black people. This rom-com is a great example.

Tina Rowden / Netflix

The first line of the Netflix original movie Nappily Ever After hit me like a rush of air-conditioning on a hot day: "Like most black mothers, my mother was consumed by the presentation of her child," Violet, the narrator and main character, says. 

We see this play out when a young Violet stands at the edge of a pool. Her hair straightened by her mom, she debates whether to mind her mom's rules to avoid anything that would revert her hair to its naturally curly state or to join the white kids having a good time in the water. 

From that point, I knew I'd see my life reflected on my TV, a rare occurrence for me as a black woman in America. 

I gasped as Violet defied her mother's threats and jumped in the pool. I thought about what would've happened had I been so bold as to ruin the work my mother put into keeping my hair straight when I was a kid.

Like Violet's mom, my mother straightened my hair so it would be more manageable and socially acceptable. She couldn't control how the white kids I went to school with viewed me, but she could control my hair.  She wanted me to avoid what young Violet experienced when she emerged from the water with curls standing all over her head -- white kids singing the Chia Pet jingle and laughing at her 'fro.

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Nappily Ever After is part of a drive to tell stories about the unique experience of being black. 

Tina Rowden

Nappily Ever After, which is based on the novel of the same name by Trisha Thomas, is a solid example of the work Netflix is putting into telling more diverse stories, especially those involving black people. 

In June, the streaming service debuted an initiative called Strong Black Lead to focus on "talking authentically with the black audience," said Maya Watson Banks, Netflix's director of brand and editorial, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times

"Strong Black Lead is relatable and real, always unapologetically black, and assumes context and knowledge so that content doesn't need to be watered down." A video called "A Great Day in Hollywood" (a nod to the iconic A Great Day in Harlem photo) featuring black actors and directors involved in Netflix projects set the stage for Strong Black Lead when it aired during the BET Awards

Nappily Ever After, which stars Sanaa Lathan as the adult Violet, takes a story unique to black women and packages it in a romantic comedy. Many moments beyond the opening scene had me nodding my head: the adult Violet bobbing and weaving to avoid rain, steam or any other form of water so her hair would stay straight; early morning visits from her mother Pauletta to straighten her daughter's hair; Violet's embarrassment about her bald head after she shaves off her hair one drunken night.

Other than some questionable hair-straightening techniques and a dog wearing a collar from Tiffany & Co., Nappily Ever After felt more real to my experiences than anything I've watched in a long time. The movie captured how integral hair is to the lives of black women. Our hair not only defines us, it's a task to be completed every morning. As of 2013, black people purchased nine times more "ethnic beauty and grooming products" than any other racial group. Black households spent an average of $94 annually at health and beauty supply stores, Nielsen reported. (I'm honestly surprised the average didn't hit triple digits.)

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Nappily Ever After gets to the root of the complex issues surrounding black hair.

Tina Rowden/Netflix

Hair was especially important in my household because my mother was a hairdresser. Many of my childhood memories take me back to her bedroom, where I sat on a squat stool in front of her as she did my hair. It took her about 15 minutes to turn it into a maze of pretty plaits fastened with ball-balls and barrettes. As I got older, she straightened my kinky hair with a relaxer, and we'd travel two hours to one another when I moved away for college just so she could touch up my roots every six weeks. 

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Ashlee Clark Thompson and her mother, Gayle, before the straight hair.

Ashlee Clark Thompson/CNET

Two years ago, my mother cut off my straight hair when I decided to go natural rather than keep getting relaxers to hide the kinks and curls. I need to work on loving myself more, and that included embracing the hair I had used chemicals to change for so many years. 

My "big chop" wasn't nearly as dramatic as Violet's, but it was still an experience that shaped the way the world sees me: as a black woman confident in her own hair, even though its texture defies Eurocentric beauty standards, and even though people stare and want to touch it like an animal in a petting zoo. 

It was hard to get used to standing out, but I've never been as comfortable in my own skin as I have just letting my hair do its thing. Nappily Ever After nailed that experience.

Netflix isn't alone in its drive to tell stories like this. Other studios, channels and media platforms have told black stories on the big and small screens, including Atlanta, Insecure, The Carmichael Show and the Academy Award-winning Moonlight, to name a few. But Netflix's move to create an entire initiative to speak to black audiences is a bold step I hope other media companies will follow. 

Like other audiences, black viewers want to see our stories on screen, and not just as slave narratives or civil rights dramas (though those are important, too). Strong Black Lead promotes the idea of the black American experience as nuanced and not always steeped in trauma. 

It's one thing to sprinkle a "diverse" movie or television show in a lineup of entertainment that features predominantly white people. It's another to plant a flag and declare a commitment to telling well-rounded stories. 

There is room for stories like Nappily Ever After that touch viewers so much they can't help but think about them for days afterward. This movie captured not only my experience, but that of my mother, my friends and every other black woman who has had an epiphany about her hair and, ultimately, herself. Our lives were reflected on screen, and I liked what I saw.

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