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Meet the black hairstylists who finally got their nod at the Oscars this year

South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha stars in ’Coming 2 America’. Image: @nomzamo_m/Instagram
South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha stars in ’Coming 2 America’. Image: @nomzamo_m/Instagram

Standing in the doorway of their mother Carla Joi Farmer's bedroom, Camirin Farmer took it all in: a towering Afro, thick layers of soft cascading waves; dreadlocks accented with purple and platinum pieces; long braids perched on top of an armoire.

Some stood at various stages of completion, with hair pinned half-up and surrounded by styling tools. Others basked in the light of that summer day in 2019, resting on faceless mannequin heads.

Indeed, the intricate Afrocentric styles that cluttered Farmer’s home that day were unlike anything she had worked on in a Hollywood career that spans 25 years.

From Brandy Norwood’s braided updo in Cinderella to Tracee Ellis Ross's signature curly tresses in Girlfriends, Farmer, 57, has been involved in several productions regarded as iconic staples in black culture - with Camirin and their younger brother Addison often having a front-row seat to the process.

This time, her assignment was to co-lead a hair department that would re-imagine Zamundan royalty in Coming 2 America, the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 1988 cult comedy film.

So in August 2019, Farmer packed about 50 suitcases full of hair and flew to Atlanta for the start of filming. When the film premiered on Amazon Prime last year, Camirin saw the wigs again in their full glory - now entwined with ribbons and feathers and embellished with gold coils and cuffs.

The imagery gave Camirin a prescient feeling about the movie’s Oscar chances; they remember telling their mother, “You’re absolutely getting nominated for this.”

Sure enough, in a viral video Camirin posted to Twitter last month, Farmer jumps up in excitement while a live broadcast announces “Coming 2 America” as a nominee for Best Make-up and Hairstyling at the 94th Academy Awards, which aired on 27 March 2022.

“I was shook,” Farmer said of the nomination. “I just couldn't believe it.”

A phone she's holding in the video also captures the reaction of Stacey Morris, a barber-hairstylist and frequent collaborator of Farmer’s. Together, they have made history: it’s only the second time black women have been recognised in this category - a nomination they share with make-up artist Mike Marino.

The first instance came just last year when Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson were nominated and presented the award for their work on Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Morris, 52, is still wrapping her head around the news. “I haven’t had a moment to soak it all up,” she said. “The other day I was sitting there and I got an email from the academy telling me that I am now a part of history. ... And so I looked it up on the internet, and in Wikipedia, I saw my name and that’s when it hit me.”

Like Farmer, Morris has worked in the industry for decades, starting out in her living room in Los Angeles, where she cut hair for some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment - including Mike Tyson, Will Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Kobe Bryant.

“It just mushroomed into this career,” said Morris, “and eventually I became part of the union side of it in the film and television industry.”

As head stylists, Farmer and Morris aren’t just hiring and leading the hair teams - they also move between departments, working to ensure congruity throughout the character looks.

“We collaborated with each other as well as the director, the make-up department head (and) Ruth Carter, who did wardrobe,” Morris said. “All of these things have to go together."

From the start, Morris said, she and Farmer made a pledge to reawaken awareness of indigenous Afrocentricity with their creations for Coming 2 America.

“It’s more than just character identity. When you see someone on screen that looks like you, it empowers you,” Morris said. “It forces you to have acceptance of your own natural hair texture.”

For Coming 2 America, Morris drew inspiration from Amasunzu, a traditional hairstyle that originated from the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda in the 1920s. “That style back then was a symbolism of maturity and strength and bravery and being a powerful militant leader,” Morris explained.

In total, Farmer estimates more than 150 looks were created for the film's principal and background characters. And during shoots, she said, actors were coming up to her relaying the producers' excitement. “Carla, they’re talking about the hair,” she recalled them saying. “It’s all about the hair.”

It was a full circle moment for Farmer, who had a similar reaction after watching the original Coming to America more than 30 years ago. “When we saw those images on film for the first time, it blew us all away,” she said.

Across the industry, however, critics say Hollywood is still fraught with few and poor representations of the black experience and identity, in which hair is firmly rooted.

“For many years, our hair looks on screen have been assimilated with Western and European ideals of what beauty should look like,” Morris said. Or in other cases, braids and natural hairstyles have been used to further perpetuate stereotypes of “hood” black women.

In recent years, more black actors, such as Gabrielle Union, Jada Pinkett Smith and Storm Reid, have come forward about hair disparities and their traumatic experiences on set - from bad wigs to bald spots.

The stories have reignited conversations about increasing black representation behind the scenes, too: As Union explained in a 2019 tweet, there can be barriers to entry for black hairstylists looking to join the industry because productions require them to be members of a guild - a process she said has never been “easy or smooth”.

Morris believes one solution lies in ramping up recruitment efforts and bringing more visibility to the guild. “I’m seeing more people trying to join,” she said, but many black artists “don’t think they can achieve this goal”.

As leaders in their field, Morris and Farmer are sought after for film projects. But they both say they prioritise a work-life balance. Coming up in their careers as single mothers, they said, it was more about choosing the right projects for their family needs.

“I didn't work every job,” Farmer said. “I took time off and I spent time with my kids.”

For the projects she did sign on for, she seized on the occasional opportunities to bring them with her to work. “I remember the one day I brought my daughter to the set [of the 1997 film Cinderella, and she was just mesmerised,” Farmer recalled.

For then 5-year-old Camirin, it felt like stepping into another world as crews moved sets around and a dazzling pink ballroom magically materialised before her. “It was really surreal,” they said. “It was like the on-set introduction of my mom’s other life outside of her being my mom.”

Seeing their mom in action has largely influenced Camirin's budding career as a comedian, an outlet they use to relay their experiences as black, queer and non-binary. “She has always taught me realism or like practicality, and a way to achieve a lot of the things that I want in my ideal world,” Camirin said.

This article originally appeared in Sunday Insider via Washington Post.

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