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When it comes to black women and hair, the debate over natural vs. straight still rages. Entering the fray is filmmaker Ada Babino and her 30-minute short Middle Passage-N-Roots. In Passage, the process of hair-straightening becomes a metaphor for the middle passage enslaved Africans had to endure in coming to America. Ultimately, though, the film is about not only slavery, but black liberation.
A lot of Passage‘s subtleties will be noticed only by blacks—for instance, the fine-tooth comb sliding easily through straightened hair. Whites may be left wondering, why all the drama. And drama there is: As the camera pans the wall where the hot combs and curling irons are kept, ominous music plays. A soundtrack of screams accompanies the hot comb as it slides into unsuspecting hair. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but a serious debate simmers beneath the surface.
Persons male, female, young, old, deaf, blind, American, Ethiopian, Latino, and Ghanaian share their perspectives. There are dreads, Jheri curls, weaves, fades, perms, braids, and I’ve-done-it-alls having their say. The message is that while black hair is capable of many permutations, keeping it natural is best. But this conclusion is not without its contradictions. A’Lelia Bundles talks about how her great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, became the first black female millionaire by starting the black hair care and cosmetics industry, which, ironically, is no longer controlled by blacks, much less women. Instead, many black women spend huge sums to use often damaging chemicals to straighten their hair, profiting an industry whose very existence implies that black hair and features are problems in need of fixing. While Walker may have helped black women become economically independent in her day, little of that self-reliant spirit remains in the industry she created. Unfortunately, Passage leaves such issues unexamined.
An opportunity to discuss such matters with Babino, Bundles, and Pamela Farrell, hair designer for the film Daughters of the Dust and owner of the local salon Cornrows and Co., will be provided after the screening of Middle Passage-N-Roots. On Monday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Ring Auditorium, 8th & Independence Ave. SW. Members $7, nonmembers $9, students $6. (202) 357-3030.