Directed by: Jeff Stilson
Starring: Chris Rock, Nia Long, Ice-T, Al Sharpton, Maya Angelou, Eve, Tracie Thoms
I have more rap albums than I have black friends on Facebook, and I don’t have that many rap albums. There is and has always been a lot of black culture that I can only understand so much, but I never really thought about hair’s role. It seems so simple – you grow it, you dye it, you straighten it, you comb it – hair just happens, and I had never bothered to think about dreadlocks or cornrows or even afros beyond the stylistic choice. With this in mind, I was confused about who Good Hair is targeted to. Is it an expose of controversial issues to spur change within the black community, or is it just opening the door into a world someone like me knows nothing about?
The premise of this documentary involves Chris Rock investigating a question from his daughter: “Why don’t I have good (read: Farrah Fawcett-ish, flowing, not nappy) hair?”. This leads him on a Michael Moore-ish journey through the $9 billion black hair industry, from relaxers to weaves to the doc’s stability device: a ridiculous hair expo stage event in Atlanta that puts pageantry and pomp over pure skill. A better reference than Moore may be Chris Bell’s 2008 steroid culture documentary Bigger Stronger Faster*, where the issues of vanity are also relevant beyond its specific subjects. While Stilson’s film doesn’t have (or need) the same personal punch, the light-hearted yet serious tone and editing style will seem familiar. Chris Rock as the catalyst for discovery makes for a very entertaining and amusing watch. Rock’s quips and reactions serve as a gateway for pasty white Canadians like me who without a guide may have no idea what the fuck they’re watching, and could not fathom why people would subject themselves to the activities involved in achieving “good hair”.
There is first an examination of “relaxers”, which turns nappy hair into straight, silky, luxurious locks. It is shocking to watch how the chemicals in these products can damage and burn, aptly demonstrated by the visual of an aluminum can being stripped by a relaxer chemical to the point where it is completely clear. A longer segment about weaves takes Rock to India, investigating the process in which young Indian girls shave their heads ritualistically and send their mops back overseas to retail for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. These segments also explore and explain how spending so much on ones coiffure can lead to distance in a relationship – the ladies aren’t going to let their fellas mess up their thousand dollar ‘do. It also obviously causes major fears of rain and swimming.
An examination of the industry behind both shows how much money black people, especially women, are shelling out to businesses that are ironically mostly not black owned. In total, these scenes raise questions of whether or not they should or even want to be more involved in serving their own community through such methods. While one might look down on some of these people for shelling out large percentages of their paycheck every month on goop and sorta-wigs, watching the sole white hairdresser of the extravagant hair show go in for Botox treatment certainly makes it clear that vanity knows no boundaries of race or ridiculousness, and that in the end a lot of this may be uniquely psychological rather than strictly cultural.
This especially becomes clear through the numerous talking head bits that pepper throughout the film from noted entertainers and figures from Ice-T to Maya Angelou, who talk of their first and/or continuing tales of weaves and relaxers. Al Sharpton for example tells about James Brown getting him to relax his hair to be more politically affable, and the payoff photograph is amusing and makes his point. A group of young girls talk about relaxing their hair not just for their own vanity, but because of the perceptions they would receive in their office had they grown their hair out naturally. You can’t help but feel bad for the one girl of the group with a cute short afro as she listens to her friends explain yet another body issue she will have to contend with.
It is unfortunate that Rock and Stilson aren’t able to push more of their celebrity friends to get on the couch and similarly open up. Most of the talking head stories simply revolve around how, and not so much WHY they do this to their heads. When Rock wants to talk about any media manipulation leading these people to believe they don’t have good hair, it doesn’t resonate as well as it could. The case is clearly made that a number of these things are controversial if not clearly fucked up, but for the few fingers Rock points outside the black community, he extends others pointing back within. I’m not sure if there was an activist element intended when they first set out on this venture, but on the psychological level there was much left to be explored.
Despite near universal critical acclaim, on IMDB and Flixster I’ve seen a lot more pushback against the film. I’ve seen some complaints from people mad at Rock taking pokes at weaves and relaxers at all, and others who believe Rock didn’t take enough of a stand. I see claims that Stilson and Rock needed to spend time with black women who DO have naturally straight hair, and should show numerous people with “bad hair” of other races. I believe those complaints are misguided and could have turned the whole thing into an unfocused mess, instead of what it is – a very funny picture that is insightful, interesting and endlessly entertaining, but missing a definitive answer to its main question. — Goon
Recommended If You Like: Bigger Stronger Faster*, Sicko, The Chris Rock Show