Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Sandra 'Pepa' Denton, Eve, Melyssa Ford
(HBO Films; US theatrical: 9 Oct 2009 (Limited Release); 2009)
In his new documentary, Chris Rock takes on a very controversial subject. No, it’s not about race, though ethnicity and cultural factors do enter into it. It’s not about gender politics or inequalities, though they also play a part in the final discussion. It’s not about neighborhood disenfranchisement, turf wars, social agendas, or individual personalities, though we see a great deal of them as well. No, Rock’s going deep into the heart of commercial cosmetology (and the media frenzy surrounding same) to discover why black women obsess on their coiffure. In trying to help his pre-school daughters understand the difference between bad and Good Hair, the comedian uncovers a multibillion dollar industry relying on misinformation, misrepresentation, and misguided personal opinions about fashion to maintain its beauty salon stronghold.
The premise is pretty simple: Rock gets a few of his friends (including fellow comedian/filmmaker Jeff Stilson) to rally around his quest for clarity, grabs a camera, and then sets out to ask the tough questions. Always tinged with humor and wit, he confronts famous African Americans about their hair choices, from known actresses (who prefer those notorious “weaves”) to the Rev. Al Sharpton (who was introduced to his first “process” by none other than James Brown). We visit the Bronner Brothers’ Annual Hair Convention and Show in Atlanta, following four stylists from around the country who are each vying for the honor of champion in the Battle Royale competition.
There is a trip to one of the few black-owned businesses catering to hair care products for the community and a discussion of the perils inherent in straightening. Perhaps most tellingly, Rock hangs out at a local barbershop and gets the male reaction to $1000 extensions and high maintenance women. Some even suggest the inflated costs of fashion, in combination with the social desire to look “good”, causes much of the strife between black couples. Indeed, some men laugh, saying their lady will gladly not pay her rent to get her weave adjusted or changed out, while importers of the “raw material” (usually from India), sit back and count their cash.
If it wasn’t for Rock tossing in the occasionally satiric rejoinder, Good Hair would be merely shocking. Like all good gateway films, it lets the audience into an arena they would rarely be able to visit themselves. While clearly geared toward the African American population and the problems it faces, Good Hair makes several rather universal claims. Indeed, this film could easily be called “Good Body” and focus on the mind-blowing Madison Avenue trend toward skeletal models and unrealistic depictions of the female (and now male) form. It could also be called “Good Man/Woman” and focus on the unreal/unhealthy expectations placed on couples by a media bent on celebrating the less than honorable elements of the battle of the sexes. In fact, aside from the whole “nappy vs. straight” debate, this movie is really about how a people use prettiness as a reflection on their value - and how misguided that can be.
Because the focus is on hair, and the stigmas/significance attached to it, Rock finds the perfect foil for his always pointed funny business. Even in situations that you’d think were serious (most of the Indian hair comes from temples where an annual ritual sees millions shave their heads), he is on target and terrific. One of the best exchanges comes with a black market mane merchant, who doesn’t quite get the comedian’s Western references. Equally intriguing are the interviews with the Battle Royale competitors, each one offering their own arch opinion about styling, the Bronner Brothers show, and the other participants. As we get to know these people, learn their strengths and their flaws, we find ourselves handicapping the contest. The finale, while not without controversy, is one of Good Hair‘s best moments.
The most compelling insights also come from the one-on-one interviews. Former child star/ Disney TV diva Raven-Symoné proudly ‘pimps’ her hairdo, arguing that she too will one day get into the weave business. By contrast, Tracie Thoms (Death Proof) celebrates her “natural” look, arguing rather successfully that it’s more attractive and becoming than a Caucasian interpretation of what black hair should be. Poet and national treasure Dr. Maya Angelou shocks Rock when she reveals that she had her first process at age 70 (!) and rapper/actor Ice-T celebrates the “anything goes” attitude about beauty. Whatever makes a woman happy, he argues, guarantees less ‘bullsh*t’ for the man she’s with. As if to emphasize this, Rock returns to the barbershop, where the customers prove the points made on both sides. While several men compliment the entire high tech approach to attractiveness, a sole voice hollers for realism - and is quickly shouted down.
Where Rock stumbles a bit is in getting to the heart of media manipulation. Soul Train gets a shout out (the syndicated ‘urban’ response to American Bandstand is where many African American’s learned their style points), but ‘70s sensations like Afro-Sheen, or magazines like Ebony and Jet are never discussed. Similarly, the comedian never pushes his subjects to reveal the underlying reasons for their hair issues. Clearly, many of the actresses and singers believe it is a business decision, a necessity to compete in what many still see as a lily-white world. But even Good Hair is guilty of its own image manipulation. When discussing a woman’s natural look, a picture of proto-feminists mega-activist Angela Davis is flashed on the screen. It’s an image that many would argue highlights the misguided demonization and stereotyping of African Americans and their otherwise noble heritage.
Still, for its minor missteps, Good Hair is a great deal of fun. Rock could read a daily production meeting call-sheet and still find a way to make it hilarious, and as a director, Stilson makes the wise decision of showing the comic constantly interacting with his subjects. Even during the sit downs, the camera glides over to Rock as he presses a participant for more information. The Battle Royale conclusion is kind of a letdown, if only because a couple of important rules are only revealed at the end, making the win seem slightly tainted. Still, for all it has to offer, one gets the impression that Rock could never really uncover the truth about “good hair”. Like so much about self-worth and image, it’s a subject wrapped up in unanswerable riddles. Luckily, the comedian is around to make fun of them.