Chris Rock gets to the root of the problem early on in his fascinating and often hilarious documentary, “Good Hair.”
It’s all about relaxing, he and his interviewees observe: relaxing African-American hair into hanging loose and free – and, in the process, relaxing the white people around them into feeling less threatened by natural black hair.
And that, Rock offers, is the basis for a multi-billion-dollar industry that gets black people to apply caustic chemicals to their heads and spend thousands of dollars on hair weaves that they can’t afford.
In other words, it’s about an industry and a society that has convinced black people that they can only be happy if their hair looks like the hair of white people.
The inspiration for Rock’s film (directed by Jeff Stilson) was an encounter with his youngest daughter, who tearfully asked him, “Why don’t I have good hair?”
That launched Rock on an odyssey that took him from Harlem to Atlanta to India, examining the various aspects of the black hair-care industry. In the process, he opens a window on both a world of commerce and offers an insight into black self-image.
The latter is a tricky bit of business. The people he interviews – everyone from actress Nia Long to rapper Eve to the Rev. Al Sharpton – seldom come right out and say, “I want my hair to look like a white person’s hair.” But that seems to be the thinking – that straight, flowing hair is more attractive and acceptable than naturally kinky or nappy hair. And that’s obviously not a message Rock wants to convey to his daughters.
Yet, whether he is talking to women or men – whose descriptions of the burning pain of applying hair relaxer (whose active ingredient is lye, sodium hydroxide) draw both gasps and laughs – the response is almost always the same: that, ultimately, they want their hair to look the way they want. And the way they – and society at large, it seems – wants it is straight, not bushy. Everyone, it seems, wants good hair.
Rock is a sharp-eyed social observer, who understands that, when the people he’s talking to don’t understand how funny or weird they are, all he has to do is let them go about their business. He is wonderfully restrained talking to the various oddballs competing in a hair-styling competition at a semi-annual (as in twice yearly) black hair show in Atlanta, who cut hair upside down or in a fish tank to earn style points.
He’s also great at prodding people into revealing themselves. At one point, talking about the fact that no black woman with a weave wants her man running his hands through her hair, he visits a Harlem barber shop – and the men there all chime in with stories of their own about the ways a woman can be about her hair.
Rock can’t quite believe what women will spend on a weave – and then goes in search of the source of all that hair. He traces it to Hindu temples in India, where women go to participate in a ceremony known as tonsuring. Rock looks shocked at the women who willingly have their heads shaved as a form of sacrifice – and discovers that this is the source of 85 percent of the hair imported for hair weaves in America.
Rock’s aim is to entertain, not explore the culture that leads to this focus on having straight, relaxed hair. He touches, for example, on the fact that only about 10 percent of the hair-care products with booths at the Atlanta show have African-American ownership. But, other than a comment by Sharpton, it’s not an issue that’s explored.
Rock would have a whole different movie – and probably not one that was nearly as amusing – were he to focus on what it is about both black and white society that has led to this essential sacrifice of identity by one particular group of people, and how they lost control of a business aimed squarely at them. The only person who comes close to addressing any of it is actress Tracie Thoms, who talks about just how difficult it is to stick to her guns and let her hair grow naturally, rather than give in to the pressure to straighten it.
Nonetheless, “Good Hair” is provocative and funny at the same time. It’s a window into a world most white people – or most people in general – know nothing about, a world that obviously is not quite what it seems to be. Which is appropriate, given that it’s the business of appearance.