Horse & Scissors

A heroin-addicted hairstylist guaranteed to scare SLIFF straight

A maroon van pulls up in front of Bryant "HairKutt" Johnson's home on an overcast Tuesday morning.

"Hey, Kutt," yells a large black man with bloodshot eyes and a runny nose, leaning out of the passenger's window. "I need my hair cut, man — open up!"

A shirtless HairKutt peeks out a second-floor curtain, eyeballs wide. He's been up watching Andy Griffith reruns — the way he starts his more productive workdays — but he's not ready to cut hair yet.

Bryant Johnson, a.k.a. HairKutt
Jennifer Silverberg
Bryant Johnson, a.k.a. HairKutt
HairKutt gives friend and filmmaker Curtis Elliott a trim.
Jennifer Silverberg
HairKutt gives friend and filmmaker Curtis Elliott a trim.

Details

HairKutt screens at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, November 15 at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Boulevard, University City) as part of the fourteenth annual St. Louis International Film Festival. Co-producers Curtis Elliott and Ben Scholle will participate in a Q&A session afterward, time permitting. For information call 314-454-0042 (extension 12) or visit www.cinemastlouis.org.

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Five minutes pass before HairKutt emerges downstairs in a freshly pressed pair of khakis, a crisp crimson T-shirt, tan Timberland boots and (of course) perfect hair. He opens the front door and shoos away his pals, mumbling that they've probably just come from their drug dealer's house, even at this early hour.

HairKutt's phone is ringing off the hook: His partners want him to come over and cut their hair at ten bucks a trim. Today this is easier said than done. Kutt is sweating profusely and, in his words, "running around like a chicken with its head cut off."

"I'm kind of sick right now," he confesses in a high-pitched stutter.

Translation: He's fresh out of heroin.

When HairKutt's high, he's happy, relaxed and energetic — seemingly sober. But when he's off the drug, he's either agitated and disorganized or profoundly lethargic.

Now 36, Kutt took his virgin voyage with the opiate when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother died.

"He was very close to his grandma," his mother, Theresa, explains. "That was the first time he had to deal with death."

It also marked the last time HairKutt was clean for any significant stretch. That inaugural snort — Kutt doesn't use needles — morphed into a regular habit, which soon became an addiction. Heroin was and is a snap to obtain in the Johnsons' Buder Park neighborhood on the near south side (although the area is in the midst of an impressive residential transformation), and HairKutt was a preferred customer, especially after dropping out of high school to cut hair and put $100 to $200 a day up his nose.

"I saw the neighborhood I grew up in go from sugar to shit — not because of crack, but because of heroin," says Anthony "Lark" Dorsey, a boyhood friend who grew up down the street from HairKutt. "Heroin is a worse epidemic than they let people know about. I have a sister who's a cop on the south side, and she says it's on every corner. Crack brought some trouble, but every time there was a shooting, it was heroin."

"From Jefferson to Tower Grove, Chouteau to Chippewa, people deal heroin," says Theresa Johnson, who pronounces the word "harrow-wine," as do her two sons (her youngest, James Jr., a.k.a. "Baby," is 34). "On the north side it might be crack, but with my sons and their friends it was always heroin."

One of those friends was Curtis Elliott. Unlike HairKutt, Elliott never flirted with heroin. But his cousins did. Hell, just about everyone did. "People were bragging all the time about getting their nod on," says Elliott, now 39 and working as a real estate agent and living in Florissant. "It was the shit to do. Black people — we take the shit and go all out. We want to graduate, not stay in first grade, know what I'm saying?"

It was one of Elliott's cousins who introduced HairKutt to the drug. Which is why Elliott, to this day, feels a measure of responsibility for his friend's struggles. And which goes some way toward explaining why Elliott, Lark Dorsey and another acquaintance, Maurice "Reese" Bradley, persuaded HairKutt to take a ten-hour drive with them to a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains, where HairKutt would sweat, writhe, moan, bleed, crap and puke his way toward a cold-turkey cure attempt in February of 2002.

Elliott brought along a camcorder and kept it rolling through five days and nights, during which HairKutt made a half-assed escape attempt and ended up in a Tennessee emergency room, dehydrated as a prune.


In the fall of 2002, Elliott contacted Ben Scholle, an assistant communications professor in charge of the video and television program at Lindenwood University, Elliott's St. Charles alma mater.

"He had bought some editing software he was having a tough time figuring out and was stuck on what to do with it," Scholle recounts. "He showed me some footage, and it wasn't slick-looking at all. But the fact that it's pretty rough actually makes it have more impact.

"A lot of what they had was just HairKutt throwing up," Scholle goes on. "I remember thinking: This could be a really repulsive version of Real World: four guys in a house, with one throwing up for hours on end. But I was also thinking it could be a good festival film. It was just a matter of trying to figure out what we needed to do to add production value and make it a story."

Assuming the role of editor and co-producer, Scholle spliced in fresh interviews with Elliott, Dorsey and Bradley, along with scenes from vintage drug-education films and a gripping epilogue that features HairKutt giving Elliott a clipper cut in his basement a year and a half after the Smoky Mountain sojourn.

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