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Rhea Dillon
Rhea Dillon "Process" Nowness x Dazed Beauty

Watch Rhea Dillon's film on the politics of afro upkeep

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff speaks to Rhea Dillon about her new film for Dazed Beauty and Nowness, Define Beauty: Process

This week is #DefineBeauty week on Nowness, a special week of programming exploring the politics and provocations of attraction. As part of the programme, Dazed Beauty and Nowness are teaming up to release three new editorial collaborations. This is the second.

The processes that black girls and women are encouraged to go through to detangle, straighten and even braid their hair are sometimes painful. Beyond the physicality – the tug of the comb and the tingling heat of the relaxer – the crowns that we hold on our heads are, as put by filmmaker and artist Rhea Dillon, “heavy laden with politics and societal pressures”. Even in the age of the natural hair movement, a boy was recently told to cut off his dreadlocks or face suspension.

In her new film Process, Rhea takes an afro pick to the knots we still find ourselves tied in when it comes to the kinky, curly, gravity-defying hair that comes out of our heads and conditions it with positivity, conceiving of an advertising landscape where non-white hairstyles are the norm. Against a backdrop of black and beautiful feminity and masculinity, that channels everything from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Jenn Nkiru’s filmmaking and Callaghan O’Hare and Irving Penn’s photography, she guides us through the time-consuming processes involved in black hair styling.

First, you undo your braids, then you wet your hair, douse it with shampoo and sud it up, condition and comb it through, rinse, blowdry, oil and moisturise and then style. You pull through the racism, the microaggressions and the nappy-headed nonsense that tries to bring you down. Even though it weighs heavy on your head, you walk out that door with your afro styled round and proud. The burden, which is really a beautiful halo caught up in ritual, or in girlhood and motherhood, is ours to reclaim.

Here, she speaks about the process behind Process, why the words of Trayvon Martin’s father ring clear through the soundtrack and the reason black women shouldn’t be ashamed of needing to take time out of their lives to focus on their manes.

What was the inception of the film?
Rhea Dillon: I was thinking about my own hair and how low I would get sometimes when I felt I couldn’t leave the house without it styled properly. Afro hair requires an organised human. If you’re planning to go out on the Friday, you would have to wash your hair on the Wednesday to give it time to be styled properly. It’s an organisation that other races don’t have to think about as much. There have been some updates in the hair wash routine like the wash n’ go phenomenon that we’re seeing at the moment but that’s really new – not everyone can do it either it can depend on your hair texture for sure. 

I had also never seen afro hair being washed on TV or film and thought something so routinely for me being omitted from the screen was really odd. I had to go and physically hunt for that visual. It’s kind of like the shaving your legs ads – you never see leg hair on TV and it’s ridiculous! There was finally an advert showing leg hair be shaved for the first time this year. When thinking of afro hair commercials or features I asked my mum about her experience and she told me about the Afro Sheen hair commercials. I went on YouTube and found an awesome archive of them and out of all of the commercials, there was only one which showed afro hair being washed in the shower, really briefly. That was so surprising for me! Lisa Bonet washes her hair in Angel Heart but that’s about it! 

Can you talk to me a bit more about the man in the video who we can hear saying, "I was listening to my son's last cry for help, I was listening to his life being taken, I was coming to grips [with the fact] that Trayvon was here no more"?
Rhea Dillon:  The voiceover for that scene, the ‘rinse’ part of our process, is a recording of Trayvon Martin’s dad talking about finding out that his son had been killed. Following that the other recordings are of news reports of the incident. That scene was a reference to the hoodie movement that has developed from Trayvon’s murder. Che (cast) plunges his head into the water to drown out the sounds of society and thus to be in a place where you can’t hear the hatred and sorrow anymore. It’s quite laden with emotional references in such a small shot. I also needed it to be a Champion hoodie because they were the brand that both created and popularised them in the 1930s in New York.

"So much is attached to our hair that doesn’t need to be. What’s going on my head shouldn’t ever implicate what’s going on in my head” – Rhea Dillon

In what way for you does Trayvon’s story explicitly link to the broader themes around hair?
Rhea Dillon: When I talk about hair I often talk about it as a crown. The crown on black women’s heads is really heavy because it’s laden with politics. If I wanted to have my hair out in an afro, people would be like, ‘Oh power to the people’. If I wanted to have it straightened, people might judge me for for wanting to attain to western beauty ideals. But sometimes I just want to have my hair looking and being cute and that’s fine. But there’s so much laden into how afro hair is styled. Even when we type into Google, ‘good hair’, it comes up with Caucasian hair. But if you type in ‘bad hair’, it often comes up with dreadlocks and an afro. As soon as you go into that corporate world so many people aren’t allowed to wear dreadlocks and in South Africa there were recently protests over an ‘agressive’ ban on afro hair at a school. There’s been so many situations – even the boy recently with his dreadlocks.

So much is attached to our hair that doesn’t need to be. What’s going on my head shouldn’t ever implicate what’s going on in my head. There’s just so much that shouldn’t be attached to strands of pure, dead hair. Because hair is dead.

I really liked how you showed the intimacy of that mother-daughter relationship. What does that mean to you as a black woman? Did your mum do your hair?
Rhea Dillon: My mum still does my hair. I’m literally going there to do it on Wednesday! That’s an ongoing thing and especially for the women in the black community, it’s such a maternal moment. In How To Get Away With Murder, Annalise’s mum comes to visit her when she’s really low. Her mum is a really hard woman but it’s really poignant that her mum oils and does her hair when she’s super depressed. That intimacy and that visual connects black women. An embrace between a mother and a son or a daughter. Or even between sisters, doing each other’s hair. I think it’s quite integral to our culture.

And even if we don’t have great relationships with our mothers…
Rhea Dillon: There’s always that time, just for hair. There’s an image taken by Callaghan O’Hare as part of her series Black Girl Magic of a girl about to get her hair straightened and her whole family are around to watch. That inspired Process. She looked really scared and she has the tiniest tear under her eye because she has seen the hot comb that’s about to go on her hair and she knows that it’s going to be painful. It’s so true, because everyone has that moment where they’re about to get their hair done and they realise that ‘pain is beauty’. When discussing this scene with my stylist on the film, Theo White, we thought it would be really perfect to put the girls (in our recreation of this scene) in ‘getting ready for church’ outfits. When you’re going out to represent your family in a way, there’s no room for any strand of hair to be moved or out of place. Callaghan’s subject might have been going to some kind of event like that.

Does anyone in the film have their hair straightened?
Rhea Dillon: No, no-one does. Everyone just has their hair natural or in braids. It’s all mainly natural styles. That was important. It wasn’t even conscious, I just think afro hair looks beautiful and wanted to celebrate that in its purest state. The core of this whole project in terms of talking about how it’s going to be shot, what music was going to go over it and the composition throughout the film was again about pushing out a positive visual of every stage of the afro hair process and afro hair as a whole. 

I thought the ending was really powerful, where she has the negative words literally sticking out of her afro but she’s still wearing it proudly. You carry the burden on your head and the problem isn’t fixed yet, but she’s still going out of the door and leaving her house.

Rhea Dillon: Yeah, that was tuning into the idea of black girls and black people having to have these words laden in their crown and just really showing the audience the effect such derogatory terms can have on young people. Sometimes that’s the best way to talk to people about an issue: through younger people or a ‘younger selves’ angle.

How far away from a time when there will be hair equality in terms of texture? I struggle to believe that we relax our hair and wear weaves just because we like the way it looks...

Rhea Dillon: It’s definitely political. Our hair is the most politically loaded hair you can get. Sure, there’s manageability, but I think it’s a general teaching. You’ll wash your hair, come out and be like, ‘maybe I should try something different’. You’ll log onto the natural hair community on YouTube and watch all the tutorials and your hair is dry by then. They do them in like 10 minutes which is never how long it actually takes. What is needed is real teaching on how to do your hair. If you stick to not doing it for whatever reason when you’re in your teens you eventually grow up and no-one is really willing to teach you. It’s hard to teach yourself to do and maintain a busy lifestyle…

It’s really about understanding your own hair and how to treat and style it. What’s needed to be understood is that afro hair, as a hair, is not going to be done in 10 minutes and that’s okay. What’s more, that’s beautiful because so much time and love go into our styles. There’s a great clip where Kathleen Cleaver discusses afro hair with a news reporter and ends with saying, “You dig it? Isn’t it beautiful? Well alright!”