For a lot of Black women — Afro-Latinas included — the beauty supply store holds a very special place in our hearts. Being Dominican-American and growing up in Queens meant weekly trips to the Dominican hair salon and the beauty supply store to buy the products I needed to care and style my hair. In fact, most of the Dominican hair products I used growing up like Silicon Mix Deep Conditioner, Crece Pelo Shampoo Fitoterapeutico Natural, and Dominican Magic Deep Fortifying Conditioner were only available at my local beauty supply stores. These stores are more than just shops that sell beauty products, they are sacred spaces for many Brown and black women, which is why the documentary Black Girl Church is one that’s bound to resonate with WOC.
Filmmakers Audrey Williams and Marissa Pina wanted to capture the often sacred experience the beauty supply store is for Black women, while also highlighting a real and problematic issue.
Williams who has made beauty supply store trips a sacred Sunday ritual since she was a little girl, got the idea for the documentary one random Sunday she was in a beauty supply store walking around and checking out products.
“I initially had the idea for the documentary but I didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to make a movie and just knew it was a story that needed to be told,” Williams tells HipLatina. “I have a journalism background, so I’m all about telling stories and writing but wasn’t sure how to tell a story in a video or film format. I knew Marissa was all about it because that’s what I knew of her and how I met her. Joe Schaefer and Marissa are a movie making pair (they are also boyfriend and girlfriend). I went to them and was like guys, help me because I can’t get this idea out of my brain and they helped me bring it to life.”
Pina helped Williams to shape her idea and make it a full-fleshed out story that wasn’t just a love letter to Black women and their hair but highlighted the discrimination and racism Black women often face in beauty supply stores that are not actually Black-owned.
“The doc is a love letter to Black women and dives into their relationship with their hair and their beauty, how the beauty supply store takes part in that, and how that’s central to everything,” Pina tells me. “But yet those safe spaces for us in our community are actually not so safe. They are hyper-policed and sometimes full of racism. In that regard, we wanted to give the problem a face and we do that talking to Sade, the owner of the beauty supply store you learn about in the film, Jeffrey Beauty Supply in Brooklyn.
In the film you not only learn that most beauty supply stores are not owned by Black people — but instead by Koreans — and you also discover some of the mix-messaging you find in beauty supplies stores as a result of that. While most beauty supply stores — in NYC especially — carry a number of hair care and styling product lines designed for Black women and textured hair, products that tell us to love and embrace our curls. You’ll also find the section with relaxers and hair bleaching creams that send an entirely different message — that a Black woman’s beauty is determined based on her proximity to whiteness.
“Beauty supply stores are like the little space within our community that’s specifically for us, you know for Black women. Then you see the products that are reflecting messages from outside the community like: Do you have nappy hair? Straighten it. Do you have dark skin? Lighten it,” Williams says in the documentary.
“I think it leaves Black women thinking they are always lacking and there’s always something that they need to improve upon,” writer, journalist, and editor Marjon Carlos adds in the doc.
“I learned so much just through the interview process and talking to these women about how much they loved growing up and going to the beauty supply store with their moms. How every time they are having a bad day or a rough time at work, they’d stop by the beauty supply store but then you slowly learn in the doc how they are also heavily monitored in these stores by security cameras and store managers. You start to put together, okay, so this is their safe space but they are also watched the entire time,” Schaefer says. “There was a lot of things to learn but the craziest factor is how so many of these businesses are not Black-owned and that’s just mind-blowing to me.”
Even till this day, I experience the very same discrimination the doc addresses. I live in a neighborhood with beauty supply stores on almost every block. Some of them do require you to check in your shopping bags and most of them do have Asian owners and managers, who literally follow you down the aisles. But I had never put the pieces together that these Asian managers were in fact, the owners. And while I recognized the racism from the second I was asked to check in my bags. I never really understood the depth of the whole situation and the complexities of the business.
“For me as a filmmaker, as a journalist, as a storyteller, I think all the time about representation and who you’re seeing on the screen and if that person represents you and looks like you and has the same experience as you, and often times they don’t,” Pina says. “Now we’re in a time when we’re seeing more and more content that’s for us and by us. But they are still often times for us but not necessarily by us. I think it’s important to own our stories and tell our own stories and to be the voice behind those stories because if we don’t, then someone else is doing it and may not be doing it right.”
Pina was passionate about the doc’s subject from the beginning. She has her own unique story and experience with beauty supply stores.
“My experience with the beauty supply store is very different from Audrey’s or the other girls in the film. I grew up bi-racial. My dad is Black and my mom is White and I also grew up in a super white neighborhood,” she says. “I was one of the Black and brown kids in my neighborhood. There were no beauty supply stores close to me. In fact, the closest one was Sally’s Beauty. I went there all the time and loved the feeling. It’s the same feeling I have now going to the beauty supply stores on the corner. It wasn’t until college when I moved to Philadelphia that I went into my first beauty supply store and I found all the products that really worked for me and my hair was there. It wasn’t until I was around 21 or 22, that I learned how to do my hair, appreciate my hair, and love myself. It took me becoming an adult to have the relationship I have now with my hair. I’m always in the beauty supply store, I spend a lot of my money there so for me it was huge to tell a story like this.”
As for why they decided on the film’s title, Black Girl Church, Williams claims it goes back to the sacredness of the beauty supply store.
“I was at the beauty supply store one random Sunday and I realized that whenever I’d go to the beauty supply store it was always on the weekend — often a Sunday when I had time. It was always when we were running errands,” Williams says. “Because you’re too busy during the week so it was always on the weekends when we would buy groceries for the week or get new hair bows to get my hair styled for the week. It was something that we always did on the weekends and when we went in it, it sort of felt like church. It’s this thing you do. It’s very meditative for many Black women to be in there.”
Black Girl Church had its first film screening in Brooklyn on Monday, April 8 and will be having more throughout the month. Check out the trailer below and go to their goFundme account, where they are raising money towards getting the film in front of as many eyes as possible.