Say what you want about Dear White People, but the film clearly explores racial identity in a smart and funny tone. We all know what it’s like to be a black face in a white world, and the film is spot-on with its explanation. In the same vein, Kimberly Steward, the highly skilled key hairstylist of the movie sat with us to explore hair on set (honestly, how many people can say they’ve styled Teyonah Parris’ hair?) and shed light on what she wants white people to know about our hair.
ESSENCE.com: Tell me a little bit about what exactly you did on set. Who did you work with; what was the experience like?
Kimberly Steward: It was amazing! It was my first feature film with bigger name celebrities and some celebs that are just getting their start. So it was a little nerve-racking and it was awesome all at the same time. I got to work with a lot of different textures of hair, men and women. And sometimes there were time crunches that we had to just get it and go and other times I got to, you know, really take my time and create some really amazing styles.
The department lead, Robb Kelly, and I had a meeting with the director the week before we started filming and we sat down and we talked about his vision for each character. You’ve got Brandon Bell who played Troy and he talks about, “babe, I need to go get my hair cut.” And she’s like, “you just got it cut last week.” And he’s like, “it’s a black thing, it’s a black thing.”
You’ve got Lionel who, you know, that wig that I created was very pertinent to his character because he was described to me as kind of a little bit of a mama’s boy. Even with Coco’s [played by Teyonah Parris] weave, I was able to get in there and do some curls and mess up that bang a little bit (laughs). Cause you know how we are with our bangs.
ESSENCE.com: Where did you get your insipration for the hairstyles?
Steward: I have two daughters [aged 15 and 17] who are all natural. They explore their natural hair in many different ways. I got a lot of inspiration from my oldest daughter, who has this beautiful, big, huge curly hair. I also got a lot of inspiration from my sister, who has a series of natural hair videos where she shows viewers how to recreate retro styles on natural hair.
ESSENCE.com: Can we talk a little bit about that one hair clip, where Coco says, “don’t assume because you see a sistah with long hair, don’t expect it isn’t hers.”
Steward: Yes! Coco was doing a YouTube clip and she was highly enraged that a white girl had asked her was her hair weave? That clip, you know, it was a little bit of a bitter sweet clip because a lot of girls who wear weave, don’t have to. Wearing weave doesn’t mean that we don’t have hair. It just means this is the hair that we want that day (laughs). And although she is wearing a wig, what she’s saying is you don’t know what I got going on. We have that versatility as black women to pretty much do what we want to do. And so Teyonah Paris is a beautiful natural hair sistah who has this huge hair that is almost to her bra strap. And I had to be very careful in doing protective braiding to put it under the wig in the first place. So if her hair was straighten out, it would probably be the same length as that wig.
ESSENCE.com: What do you want white people to know about our hair?
Steward: Don’t think just because there’s a race attached to the person whose head the hair is on that that means there’s a specific thing with that hair. Fletcher’s son (played by Kyle Gallner) has fifty million cowlicks. And us curly girls know about cowlicks. Kyle’s hair is just like mine and I’m not white. Whatever his hair went through on set, my hair went through. And he’s a guy, I’m a girl. And he’s white and I’m black. So how do you explain that?
Also, white’s have to understand that even though hair is a big part of our identity, it’s intimate. And it’s just like that clip said, “This is not a petting zoo.” Think before you touch!
ESSENCE.com: Haha! Understood. What’s the importance of hair when telling stories within our community?
Steward: Our hair identifies who we are. There’s a lot about us you can find out about our hair. Every time I do some body’s weave, especially when it’s straight, I tell them go home and play with their hair. I say, “Do whatever it is that you want to…touch it. Shake your hair back and forth. Do all of that!” And the next day, I don’t want them to touch it again. You can always tell the girl with the weave, because she’s the one playing in her hair.
ESSENCE.com: That’s so true!
Steward: It already doesn’t look like your hair (laughs) for the most part and you’re playing in it. If you notice, Coco during the whole movie, she is putting her fingers in her hair and she’s pulling it. She’s flipping it back. She’s turning her head all extra hard because she has a weave. You know that girl. All of us know that girl.
ESSENCE.com: What are your personal hair memories?
Steward: If you don’t feel like your hair is right, you can’t go anywhere. I remember when I was making the journey going natural. I didn’t know what my hair was going to do without a relaxer. And I was forced into the natural hair game because my hair stop taking a relaxer. And so I literally was wearing wigs, turbans and urban wraps trying to figure out what I was going to do. From day to day I started putting some weave in it. And finally my sister said, we’re going to chop it all off and she chopped it off and I love it! I love my natural hair. That’s the story I love to tell.