By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Black women’s hair and hairstyles have been at the forefront in news stories during the past few years. A few years ago, a Chicago native and former football player Matthew Cherry won an Oscar for his film titled “Hair Love.” It’s a 2019 animated short film that follows the story of a man who must do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
It surely had folks everywhere obsessed with Black hair, and I’m sure that the story had many more young Black girls playing with dolls and styling their own hair or that of their friends.
This “playing around” with hair can turn into polished skills and a profitable career as it has for local Gary native Mia Neal, who has been nominated for an Oscar for makeup and hairstyling. She was the hair and wig designer and hair department head on the 2020 Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Her work on this film also has a local spin—in that it’s a film based on playwright August Wilson’s play of the same name and follows a 1920s recording session in Chicago. The movie was produced by Denzel Washington and stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Levee and Viola Davis as blues singer Ma Rainey.
And in a season where the Academy has been trying to shed itself of the controversy and allegations of only favoring white actors and principals during the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, Neal and another Black woman, Jamika Wilson (Davis’ personal hairstylist), have been nominated in the same category—becoming the first Black women to be nominated for makeup and hairstyling. Neal has said: “I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be honored by such a prestigious committee. To be with Jamika and for us to be the first African Americans nominated in this category is overwhelming. I have to raise my expectations for myself because this was something I never thought that I could achieve. I attribute the opportunity that we received from Denzel [Washington] who has really made it his mission to tell the stories of our dignitaries and keep their work alive, like August Wilson and Ma Rainey.”
The Oscars have been celebrating many “firsts” lately. For example, Ruth Carter, who has been designing costumes for films for more than 30 years—most notably for Spike Lee films, recently was the first Black to win an Oscar for costume design for her colorful, jaw-dropping costumes for the 2018 movie “Black Panther.”
This is also a first Oscar nomination for Neal, but the work that she has put in in the field of hair and makeup has been deliberate and longstanding. Neal has been based in New York since graduating from the Juilliard School of Professional Internship for Wigs and Makeup.
After graduating from Gary, Indiana’s, Horace Mann High School in 1997, Neal attended Merrillville Beauty College, and moved on to Columbia College in Chicago. She enrolled at Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi. Reportedly, while working at a MAC Cosmetics counter in Jackson, a co-worker encouraged her to apply for the nine-month wig program at Juilliard in New York. The professional hasn’t looked back.
A veteran of New York stage productions and films, Neal has previously worked as the hair department head for the 2019 film “Uncut Gems,” which starred LaKeith Stanfield, Adam Sandler and basketball great Kevin Garnett.
And for those aspiring hair stylists and “kitchen beauticians,” Neal has previously said: “I also have to thank my ancestors,” she added. “I feel like they’ve been with me every step of the way, and that everything they’ve done was so their future generations could live out their dreams. They kept going so we could have a better life, and I feel like these dreams of mine are their dreams too. And I hope that people that look like us know that they can do it too.”
To view a trailer for the film and some of Mia Neal’s handiwork, search: [https://tinyurl.com/484mfbrw].
To view a WTTW interview with Mia Neal, search: [https://tinyurl.com/crw92um4].
The Oscars will air Sunday, April 25, live on ABC at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/englewoodelaine/ or email: email@example.com.