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On Hulu’s The Other Black Girl, the hair is the point

The new show’s hair and wardrobe team explain the significance of these seemingly small choices.

Ashleigh Murray as Hazel in The Other Black Girl.
Wilford Harwood/Hulu
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Hulu’s The Other Black Girl, premiering September 13, is a show whose themes are inextricably tied to its styling.

Its main characters drift chameleon-like across the screen, switching off hair and outfits and signature lipstick as the plot, which plays with the ideas of Black womanhood, respectability, and performance, evolves.

Rare is the TV show where hair product is a major plot point. The hair in such a show had better live up to its star billing — along with the makeup and the clothes.

Based on the 2021 novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl works like a Stepford Wives for Black women. On one side of the aisle are the non-robots: people like main character Nella, who, as the show begins, wears Peter Pan collars and sensible cardigans, a baby Afro and face bare of makeup. On the other side are the people who aren’t quite robots but who do seem too cool to be normal people: like Hazel, the new girl at Nella’s office, who wears her hair in long dramatic locs and sports floral blazers in editorial shapes.

At first, Nella is relieved to see another Black girl at the tony all-white publishing office where she works. She thinks Hazel’s clothes are unspeakably cool, and she’s more than happy to join Hazel in promising that they’ll look out for each other in the microaggression-strewn landscape of publishing.

Gradually, though, Nella starts to suspect that there might be something a little off about Hazel. Every time the opportunity comes to stand up against the white gatekeepers of cultural power, Hazel backs off. She tells Nella she thinks they can be more effective working within the system than outside it — and she seems weirdly insistent that Nella should think so too.

Hazel and Nella are performing different versions of Black womanhood. As the show goes on, their performances evolve, too. On The Other Black Girl, a big style change signifies a big change in both personality and politics. On this show, the people who dress the coolest are also the most conformist.

Ashleigh Murray as Hazel, left, and Sinclair Daniel as Nella, right, on Hulu’s The Other Black Girl.
Wilford Harwood/Hulu

For the show’s costume designer Kairo Courts, Nella’s style journey echoes the evolution of an archetypal professional Black woman. “For a lot of us, that’s the evolution of how you start,” says Courts. “In corporate America, you try to emulate, you try to fit in. You know you don’t want to ruffle the waters. That’s what Nella is doing.”

Nella starts to change her mind about her style, however, after she lets Hazel dress her up for a big networking event, in a sharp plaid blazer and bold red lip.

“You made me look like you,” Nella says, staring at her reflection with mingled delight and trepidation.

“You’re welcome,” Hazel sing-songs.

After her first makeover, Nella is “looking up to other women who are more bold than she is,” explains Courts. Hazel is one of a group of chic and accomplished professional Black women, and Nella finds their confidence and style deeply alluring.

Courts imagines Hazel’s style as looking like Nella’s might if she weren’t trying to blend in at all times. “What would it look like if we didn’t have that blockage where we have to play the part in business settings?” she asks. “What would it look like if you brought your culture and your style to the full front, and it showed up in all the spaces that you are? Because a lot of times, that’s not allowed for Black women. What would that look like, if we were able to get people out of their inhibitions?”

Hazel flourishes without inhibitions. She also sabotages and casually backstabs. She’s willing to rep for her culture, but also to betray it if it serves her purposes. Nella, meanwhile, seems to have drawn the conclusion that she’ll only be able to advocate for Black people at work if she disguises herself, cosplaying in the blandest and most conformist clothes she can think of.

Hazel’s style is also supposed to look like Nella’s aspirational style goals for slightly darker reasons. “A lot of Hazel’s looks were based on people she wanted to, let’s say, recruit,” explains hair department head Pamela Hall.

To target cosmopolitan Nella, Hazel wears her hair in locs. In flashbacks, though, we see her with natural curls, in a silk press, and even with flat-ironed hair. Hazel’s style isn’t about expressing herself and her ambition and culture unapologetically. It’s about how she thinks her targets want to look, themselves. She doesn’t seem to have a real sense of her own to express.

The audience, though, has to find Hazel’s style just as alluring as Nella does to understand why Nella is so drawn to her. Essie Cha, head of the makeup department, says she gets the appeal of Hazel and her entourage completely. “They’re gorgeous women and smart and elegant and successful,” Cha jokes. “I would take [their secret] by the bucketful.”

Wouldn’t we all? Everyone seems to find Hazel more appealing than Nella, including Nella’s coworkers. Hazel is easy to like. She’s uninhibited enough to showcase the casually chic style white women are always appropriating from Black women. She gives her white coworkers ample opportunity to perform their own cultural tolerance, bringing in cake from Harlem to share around and lying that her grandparents ate the same cake on their wedding night. But Hazel’s Blackness comes without any meaningful challenge to the status quo. The fantasy of the fully uninhibited professional Black woman remains, in the end, a fantasy.

The Other Black Girl premieres September 13 on Hulu.

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