If there has to be a voice for black culture, you could do worse than Chris Rock. In answering an innocent inquiry from his four-year-old daughter about her hair, Rock finds answers that are beautiful, touching, hilarious, and scathing. Like the biting commentary on his HBO show, Good Hair flourishes with Rock’s acerbic but never condescending humor. It’s a startling and enlightening look at the enterprise and culture of black hair, and, at the same time, it manages to be prideful while shaking its head in disbelief; mocking without ever being an indictment or an admonishment. Rock uses his influence to interview major black figures, from dignified statesmen to rappers to actresses to comedians. When you are able to include Maya Angelou next to Paul Mooney, Reverend Al Sharpton next to KRS-One, you know you’re doing something right. If there is a flaw, it’s when Rock tries to pull Michael Moore/Sasha Baron Cohen-esque stunts to push a point. But most of the time, he and co-writer/director Jeff Stilson are savvy enough to take the quest for good hair seriously, letting the ridiculousness come out in the wash. And the result is pretty damn flashy.
Good Hair follows a smart path from a simple question: what does it mean for a black person to have good hair? Make no mistake, this question — and this film — is meant for a black audience. That’s not to say a person of a different race couldn’t enjoy or appreciate it, but Rock is making the active decision to put the question to his people for his people. What’s impressive is that Rock is able to balance the celebrity interviews with man-on-the-street work to get the most impact. He’s not out to set an agenda — and believe me, he’s got plenty of ammunition to turn the documentary into a hellfire sermon about the insane lengths black people undertake in the name of style.
If Good Hair were merely about style, it could be about any culture. Even if it were just about women in general and trying to obtain some sort of magazine standard of beauty, it wouldn’t be as powerful a film. There are women of all races who dye, Botox, bleach, blast, tuck and suck to achieve some sort of polished grace. Plenty of men, too. But as I said, Rock’s not trying to open the debate up to everyone. It’s a very select study of how it affects black culture. And by God, it is entertaining.
Rock bookends his movie with the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta, GA. Having seen Blow Dry, I knew that hairstylists would go to ape-shit lengths to sculpt Barbies like a Food Network Cake Challenge. Having also seen Stomp the Yard, Drumline, and Snaps, I should have known that black people would take this to levels of sublime showoffsmanship which would make a peacock blush. But you’ve also seen those films and shows. Can you blame them? That shit’s bananas. (I don’t speak jive.) The Bonner Brothers Hair Show is the biggest gathering of black hair product producers and stylists in the galaxy, culminating in a televised Hair Battle. Oh, that’s no typo, my friends. It’s a motherfucking Hair Battle — going Nair on split hairs like rappers spitting, only with scissors instead of microphones. What makes it lusciously ludicrous is that the stylists are judged not just on their ability to cut and style three heads of hair in 15 minutes, but also on choreography, audience participation, theme, and originality. One of the rules is that you can’t have more than ten people on stage at one time. For a fucking haircut competition. One of the contestants avoids that technicality by having his FUCKING MARCHING BAND perform in front of the judges’ table. You better recognize. And moisturize.
Rock then takes us from the big show into neighborhood barbershops in his efforts to reveal the insanity of what black women do to their hair in order to avoid the natural afro look. Straight hair is favored by magazines, and on the heads of the actresses / models / musicians he interviews. What’s particularly wonderful is that Good Hair could easily have been an attack on females for doing this to themselves. But Rock shows that black males expect, favor, and are often expected to pay for the maintenance of this. One black man at the barbershop claimed some black men prefer white women simply because of the lack of hair maintenance. You can run your fingers through their hair and not pull back a nub.
And it’s fucking crazy. First Rock takes on relaxer: a chemical lye used to straighten the coarse black natural hair, referred to by its devotees as creamy crack. In one of the more staged moments, Rock visits with a white scientist who uses the major component of relaxer — sodium hydroxide — to dissolve aluminum soda cans and eat through chicken breasts. And this is what black people put in their hair, taking pride in the burn to know it’s working. Ice-T said so. Rock then shows infants as young as three getting the treatment. Lye can eat through human skin. In case you weren’t paying attention in science class, babies are made of human skin.
Even wilder than the relaxer is the weave — a process by which either synthetic, or, more favorably, human hair is sewn onto braids in the scalp to create a sturdy wig. The bundles of hair and the process of weaving can take nearly six hours and cost several thousands of dollars. These weaves used to be guarded like some sort of Hecuban secret, which may have caused death or scalping to those who spoke ill of it. Now, women wear other people’s hair with open pride, sometimes foregoing rent to afford the costly procedure. I may not have a house, but I sure look good.
The sad part is that most of the black hair product empire is owned and profited from by non-black entrepreneurs. There are three relaxer-manufacturing companies that are black owned. The weaves that black women wear with pride come from Indian scalps shorn as part of a religious ceremony and then sold for a profit by Indian businessmen. It doesn’t matter because it’s simply not fashionable to wear your hair in an afro. There’s a heartrending scene where Rock interviews five high school girls about what it means to look successful. Four of the girls are overweight with shiny straight tresses, and one adorable gal who looks like a young Jill Scott sits in the center with a subdued Afro. The larger girls then use her as an example — “no offense, you look cute but…” — of how to look unprofessional. As the girls explain how women with Afros don’t look trustworthy or successful and how they imply a disregard for rules or proper fashion, the camera pans in on the young girl quietly sitting sadly.
Rock doesn’t let the film sit in the preaching doldrums. As I said, he’s not trying to preach the gospel of Nappy Afro. He goes on to talk about the pride of looking good. He interviews the successful barbershop/salon owners who own the stores that are the cultural nuclei of their neighborhoods. The message of the film isn’t that you should be natural or that black hair is a python coiled around the neck of the community. The message is that you should look however makes you feel good, and it’s a nice message. Even when we watch the over the top promenade of the stylists — some of them dangling upside down as they work scissors or cut hair in a massive aquarium — it’s embraced as a strictly black thing (even though one of the stylists looks like an albino Coco). Rock talks about how black hair has influenced other races, who now sport weaves and the same straight hairstyles as their Nubian counterparts. It’s never an attack on black culture or community, but more wide-eyed: how many a’s are there in “daaaaaaaammn?” More importantly, it doesn’t demonize the culture in order to demonstrate pride. You don’t always have to put on a fat suit and a housedress to show the uniqueness of black culture.
Brian Prisco is a bitter little man stomping sour grapes into fine whine in the valleys of North Hollywood. He’s a screenwriter who’s never been professionally produced, an actor who’s never joined a guild, and a director who made one bad film. He’s one waiter apron away from a cliche, and he’s available for children’s parties. You can tell him how much you hate him at priscogospel at hotmail dot com.