On Sunday night, Mary J. Blige will attend the 90th Academy Awards not as a guest, presenter or simply a performer, but as a dual nominee for best supporting actress and best original song for Dee Rees’ gripping post-World War II drama, Mudbound. It’s a remarkable first-time feat for a first-time nominee; no other person has ever been nominated in an acting and song category for the same film.
In Mudbound, Blige plays Florence Jackson, the beleaguered but noble matriarch of a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi. Her stillness often anchors the film, riveting your attention to her every time she is on-screen. In the months since the film’s release and growing Oscar buzz, Blige has spoken frequently about harnessing the power of her sadness from her ongoing divorce from former manager Kendu Isaacs for the role, as well as stripping down to play Florence Jackson. From Vulture:
I’m Mary J. Blige. I mean, like, this is what I do. I wear wigs, I wear bob wigs, and I had to completely strip down to my own natural hair texture, which I’ve always been afraid of. Dee stripped me down all the way to what I truly am, and people were complimenting me. People were saying how beautiful I was. I didn’t know I was that beautiful for real. You understand what I’m saying? I didn’t know that.
Two-time Emmy Award-winning hairstylist Lawrence Davis was instrumental in that transformational “makeunder,” using both his extensive historical knowledge and incredible skill to render the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul almost unrecognizable to audiences at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Mudbound premiered. Said director Rees: “The great surprise at Sundance was that people didn’t know it was her until the credits rolled.”
Intrigued by the power of Blige’s natural beauty, The Glow Up had the opportunity to talk with Davis about stripping down a megastar like Mary J. Blige, whom he describes as “one of the shyest women on earth ... and so super-sweet.” He tells us:
I remember Mary’s first day coming in for a camera test; I had specific directions from Dee Rees about how she wanted Mary just to strip down. She’s like, “I don’t want wigs, I don’t want this, I don’t want that; I want it all organic.” I said, “You got it.”
So Mary came in the trailer, and she sat in my chair, and we talked a little bit, as I was like, “Well, I just need to get you to trust the process. Trust me to take you where you want to go, and if anything feels uncomfortable, we’ll talk through it. So I [asked], ‘Are you ready?’ She’s like, ‘I’m not taking my wig off in front of all these people!’”
Davis accommodated, clearing out the hair and makeup trailer to unmask the artist as well known for her assortment of blond coifs, lengthy manicures and thigh-high boots as for her hit-making urban ballads and bangers. Of course, Blige tried to negotiate her way into wearing a natural wig to play a sharecropper’s wife, but Davis remained firm:
“‘No ... Dee wants you. She wants you to strip down,’” he told Blige. “‘She don’t want to see Mary; she wants to see Florence Jackson walk in there for this camera test.’”
Davis ultimately won her trust, peeling back both wig and tracks of weave to reveal Blige’s natural hair. Throughout Mudbound, audiences are seeing Blige’s natural texture at work in creating humble updos and a single scene in which we see her shoulder-length hair hang free. While the star was leery at first, she soon succumbed to the process—and the freedom that came from releasing the trappings of being Mary J. Blige. Says Davis:
She basically let herself go, and she became Florence right there in that trailer. And with that, it was just taking any hair she had on her head out—no hair, no weave, no wig—taking her nails off, her lashes off. Basically, you got organic Mary. And I would say about the second, third day, Mary was coming in the trailer full-on Afro, just totally free ...
[A]nd I could definitely see that she had this freedom that she did not have day one from that point on. And with that, it just took me saying, “You’re Florence Jackson.” I said, “Florence, she’s a woman—she lives on a farm, but she takes care of herself. She washes her clothes, she washes her kids’ clothes. She does the best with what she has; she’s a groomed woman. She lives on a farm in the South in the ’40s. But she takes care of herself and her family.” And that’s who Mary became; she became Florence Jackson.
As for the personal woes that Blige was admittedly experiencing during filming, Davis says he was unaware of the specifics at the time, but definitely noticed the emotional transformation that took place:
[T]here were times when I could feel the heaviness—but didn’t know what it was. But I will say that I literally saw that heaviness go away as she got into this character, and she came in there every day and became Florence Jackson. She started talking more, and that heaviness that was there, it disappeared during this movie.
As lead hairstylist on Mudbound, Davis was entirely in his element. The Baltimore native has a specific affinity for period hairstyles and has previously flexed his knowledge and skills behind the scenes of era-specific projects like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Bessie and Hairspray Live!—for which he won the second of his two Emmys.
Davis got his start in his native city, owning his own salon before making the brave choice to sell it and move to Los Angeles in 2001. Halle Berry’s then-stylist Neeko Abriol gave Davis a shot in his salon, and doors immediately began to open. He has since garnered 81 film and television credits, in addition to leading the hair teams of Being Mary Jane, Greenleaf and Claws. But it is the period pieces that remain his true passion. Case in point: His current project is styling Mahershala Ali into virtuoso pianist Don Shirley for the upcoming film Green Book. As Davis tells The Glow Up:
I honestly feel like I’ve been reincarnated, because as long as I remember—even from being a young kid—I gravitated toward anything that was vintage. Vintage cars, vintage clothing; I loved thrift stores because of the vintage clothing.
And when I first got a call to do a period piece, I was most excited because it got to the root of what I wanted to do. You know, hairstyling is great, and I love it. But there’s something that I’m drawn to when it comes to period styling. I love the authenticity of it, and how it brings forth the story and tells the story without there even being any verbiage. You can look at the person and see where they’re from, or what’s going on with them because of maybe the economic setting, but just the style that they’re adorned with—the beautiful hair, the beautiful clothes, the beautiful makeup—all of that.
But, specifically, Davis loves working with the natural textures of black hair, and is emphatic that it be portrayed accurately on-screen. For him, there is an eternal elegance to natural hair. He believes that natural hairstyles belong in every film and on every red carpet because they are part of our legacy of style:
Black women, even before they started pressing their hair, they basically knew how to create these wonderful shapes out of natural hair; these silhouettes and things like that that speak elegance and class without pressing it out and going bone straight and having it go silky and shiny. It just was a beautiful, beautiful thing to see. ...
But we definitely have the most beautiful hair to me on earth. And you know we wear it well, and I think that in any period movie—no matter what period it is—I think there always should be a black woman with natural hair. ... I just feel like black hair—natural hair—should always be a part of it.
But if Davis is excited about the resurgence of natural hair on-screen and on the red carpet alike, he also loves that even black women who wear wigs are gravitating toward styles with more texture in them (e.g., Viola Davis’ incredible Golden Globes look this year). He predicts that at the Oscars this Sunday and many to come, we may bring even more natural styles and braided updos to the step-and-repeat, and tells us:
I think women are much more open to showing exactly, you know, what’s under that wig as opposed to covering up nowadays. And I look at every award show and I always see somebody come forth and say, “No, this is who I am, and this is who I have been and I want to show it.” ...
I think that even when other races look at us and see us out there in our natural form, they love it, because it tells them how proud we are as a people and how proud we are to show what’s natural about us, and what’s unique about us.
And that’s exactly how Davis thinks it should be. For him, natural hair has always been far more than just a trend or a movement: “Just call it us. ... I don’t think it’s a movement anymore; I just think it is reality. It’s who we are, and we’re proud of it.”