Good Hair gets to roots of black community’s image issues

Chris Rock narrates a funny, fascinating documentary about African-American hair

I learned more from Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair than I did from all the other films and plays I’ve seen about African-American beauty parlors and barbershops put together. As a white guy with straight hair (and seemingly less of it every day), subjects like weaves and relaxers tend to be terra incognita. Even black audiences might view African-American hairstyle issues to be a narrow, niche subject for a full-length nonfiction film. Neverthless, narrator Chris Rock provides cutting commentary that reveals some surprisingly deep sociological roots.

Rock explains that his interest in hair issues originated with his two young daughters, particularly when one asked him, “Why don’t I have good hair?” “Good hair” turns out to be a loaded expression, referring in this context to straight “European” hair rather than kinky “black” hair, deemed as unmanageable in salons and unfashionable on magazine covers. Rock’s frequently snarky commentary suggests that African-Americans sacrifice too much of their time, money and well-being in the attempt to live up to a white ideal.

The comedian chats with seemingly countless starlets and celebrities, including Eve, Nia Long and Salt-n-Pepa, about the lengths to which they’ll go to get their hair “under control.” Al Sharpton, whom Rock calls “the Dalai Lama of relaxer,” recalls that his swooping hairstyle originated with James Brown, who told him to get a look to match the Godfather of Soul’s sartorial statement for a White House visit.

Good Hair includes streaks of economic justice themes. Rock points out that African-Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 80 percent of the hair care market. Only a tiny fraction of African-Americans own hair product companies, however. As Sharpton remarks, “You get up and comb your economic exploitation every morning.” Rock takes a Michael Moore-type tour of follicle-informed destinations, including India, where tonsure ceremonies provide hair for African-American wigs and weaves on the other side of the hemisphere. The comedian shows up at hair-buying shops trying to sell bags of nappy hair, only to get turned away.

Rock also visits the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show, held “where all major black decisions are made — in Atlanta!” The film occasionally follows four contestants in the show’s annual “hair battle,” which involves elaborate, perplexing stage productions with stunts such as cutting hair underwater or while hanging upside down. Despite having a competition motif perfect for a reality TV show, Good Hair doesn’t spend enough time with the performing stylists for the audience to have much stake in who wins. Instead, Good Hair pokes fun at their eccentric or flamboyant personalities. When the white male stylist — an incongruous favorite to win — gets Botox before the show, it could be a scene from Brüno.

Rock’s stand-up comedy frequently riffs on male-female differences. In Good Hair, he suggests that African-American women obsess over their weaves, which can cause friction in relationships over their sky-high expense and fragility. Guys in a barbershop confirm that a bedroom “hands off the hair” policy can get in the way of intimacy, but Rock harps on the issue until he sounds vaguely resentful of African-American women. Overall, he appears to enjoy hanging with his interview subjects, and should be commended for lending his celebrity to a seemingly unglamorous project that turns out to be his most interesting film (yes, even compared to Pootie Tang).

Good Hair presents plenty of compelling and comical moments. Relaxer — nicknamed “creamy crack” for its users’ attachment to it — contains an acid so caustic, it can easily cause chemical burns. When a flask containing just the acid dissolves a Coke can in a matter of hours, Rock quips, “So, that can’s got a good perm.” Overall, Rock’s documentary reveals enough hair-related horror stories to curl the locks of the uninitiated, which could be counterproductive.