BAFTA longlisted film sparks conversations about hair discrimination

Screenwriter, actor and producer Joan Iyiola

Joan Iyiola co-wrote the script for Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine, produced and stars in the film as Daisy. - Credit: Helen Murray

A Hackney actress, screenwriter and producer who has had her first short film longlisted for a BAFTA hopes the piece will get people talking about hair discrimination.

The film, Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine, is a coming-of-age story about a young Black Nigerian-heritage woman called Dọlápọ̀ who is pressured to change her name and natural hairstyle as she prepares to leave boarding school and enter the world of work.

Joan Iyiola and Chibundu Onuzo wrote the short, directed by Ethosheia Hylton, as a means of sparking conversations about hair discrimination and, Joan says, “what happens when the environment that you exist in was not built for you”.

She told the Gazette: "I remember saying I think we really need to put this on screen. I just had such conviction about it.

“I hadn’t seen this, the young Black girl at a British boarding school where she is central to the story and I hadn’t seen a film that talked about hair.”

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Joan said she was shocked when the film was picked up on the American circuit and won the 2020 HBO Short Film Competition at American Black Film Festival.

Since then, Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine has made it onto streaming services Netflix and HBO. It was also longlisted for British Short Film at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs).

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“We didn’t expect it. You should have seen me that day when they told me – I think I went into shock,” she said.

The film draws comparisons to the real-life case of Ruby Williams, a former schoolgirl sent home from Hackney's Urswick School for the length of her afro hair.

Ruby’s case was picked up by national news as she, and her family, battled against the school’s uniform policy in 2020, later receiving an £8,500 payout from the school.

Doyin Ajiboye stars as Dọlápọ̀ Is in the short film Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine.

Doyin Ajiboye stars as Dọlápọ̀ in the short film Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine. - Credit: Helen Murray

Joan hopes her film can highlight stories like Ruby’s, which she heard when Dọlápọ̀ Is Fine was in pre-production. 

She said it was another example of “still treating afro hair as some sort of controversial issue”: “How dare society treat a young girl going through her schooling in such a way, to the point that they are having to fight and stand for what it is that they are born with – and that exists on their head.”

The screenwriter said the film not only “sheds light on discrimination” but also “shows the joy in that struggle”.

“So often you see these stories and the Black experience, it's shrouded in so much trauma onscreen, and while we know that we have those struggles, we also know that we have a defiance that sometimes comes in the vein of joy – of how we tackle our way through it."

Joan continued: "Ultimately we wanted to make a celebratory piece to show what happens when someone holds their ground.

"But in so doing, we wanted to of course make the comment on the constant discrimination that is happening to so many Black girls and Black women in the workplace too."

Joan says the film also revealed her own hair journey having worn braids, relaxing her hair and wearing weaves until 2013, when she wore her hair naturally and publicly for "the first time" in her adult life, due to a role she was playing at the time.

“My family are Nigerian,” Joan said. “So there was this real sense of being presentable and making sure that you look neat and I think that’s because they were acutely aware of hair discrimination.”

She says it has “been a journey of getting to know” her natural hair and loving it because “it was hidden for so long”.

"It's not easy looking after our hair," the actress said. 

"So when it requires that much care and the world has treated it in a way of disgust sometimes, as Black women and women of colour, we really go through a process where our hair can be our juror but also, our hair can be our crown and our glory."

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