Good Hair

What constitutes the “good”? Since Plato constructed his philosophical republic in the sky, this question has perplexed and spurred the great minds of Western thought, from the ancient Greeks through the great minds of the Enlightenment and down to the… comedians of the present? Sure, why not!

Inspired by a simple, innocent question posted to him by his five year old daughter – “Daddy? Why don’t I have good hair?” – Chris Rock embarks upon an inquiry into what constitutes “good” that strays into arenas of beauty and racial identity; self-image and self-worth among African-American women; the social and financial impact of extreme cosmetology; and the “N” word.

The “N” word in this case being… nappy. Thorny, knotty, kinky. Tight, curly hair… black hair. Good Hair, Rock’s comico-serious investigation into the roots of African-American women’s hair issues, ranges far and wide, taking the comedian from the beauty shops of New York to the hair factories of India; from the Bronner Brothers hair expo in Atlanta to Dudley Products, a black owned hair care giant, also located in Atlanta (as Rock says off the top, all roads lead in the world of black hair care lead to Atlanta).

It’s a fun movie, as you’d expect with anything involving Rock. He’s a feisty and irreverent interlocutor, using his brash humor to shine light on the more serious questions swirling around the supercharged world of black cosmetology.

Like… well, for basics, the big question: Why this mania among a good number (but certainly not all) African-American women to have long, luxurious, very straight, some would say very white, hair? Why do these women seem so insistent on disowning a significant component of their racial identity? Especially when it’s so difficult and expensive to maintain this illusion of silky smooth hair? If the lengths these women go to are any indication, these are not negligible questions – but they may not have easy answers.

The solutions, however, are easy enough to pick out, because there are really only two time honored fixes for “bad” hair. One the one hand, one can apply harsh, burning chemicals, also known as “relaxer” (the application of which looks anything but relaxing). Traditionally, the relaxant has been sodium hydroxide (aka, lye, the use on one’s head is, frankly, just insane. Luckily, it’s not used quite as predominantly anymore) which, when applied with vigor and in great quantity, seems to do the trick of de-kinking curly hair. It’s a lot of work, it’s a bitch to get out, and it’s a temporary solution that I guess works well if you never plan on washing your hair again.

The other famous (or infamous) solution is weaves, which are very (very) expensive hair extensions, of a sort. Generally made out of actual human hair (harvested, in great abundance, in India by women who believe they’re sacrificing their hair to their deity), these luxurious Indian locks are attached, in a very labor intensive procedure, to the actual hair on one’s head to make it appear fuller and more abundant. Weaves aim for seamlessness, though they are generally fairly obvious to point out. They do the job though – both on “bad” hair, and on the pocket book.

Weaves on the low end cost at least a $1,000, and that’s not including the charge to attach and then maintain them, which can tack on another grand. Top line weaves can top out at over $3,000, which gives you an indication of how very seriously some women take this (and how lucrative an industry this is).

As for a lucrative industry, it’s in the billions. Multiple billions. Maybe like nine or ten. Here is where we see maybe some nefarious powers at work, and maybe the circular reinforcement of black women’s self-image. What billion dollar industry doesn’t maintain its iron grip on its base, especially one that preys on insecurities? It’s a slam dunk.

This begs the chicken-egg question of course: whence this deep rooted desire for “good hair”? Did the business originate out of the need, or did business create the “need” for non-black hair? There’s no real answer here, and Rock has a hard time formulating the hard questions, the right questions, that would start getting beneath the surface of the issue. It’s probably beyond the purview of the film, and would have given it a more serious – a more soporific – tone that might have been more informative, but less entertaining.

Good Hair is entertaining – very. The candid discussions in beauty and barber shops are a hoot, especially when they start to revolve around sexual landmines that arise because of hair issues – most of which boil down to a bizarre protectiveness on the part of black women to their hair, to the point of forgoing um… the basic pleasures of healthy sexual activity.

Also entertaining is Rock’s trip to the annual Bronner Brothers Hair Expo, the largest showcase of hair care products in America (and maybe the world?) A three day carnival of demos, new product displays and pageantry, it looks to be one of the most singularly entertaining spectacles in America. I desperately want to attend.

The centerpiece is a bizarre event — part competition, part elaborate stage show — in which four or five of the best stylists in the country square off in a battle royale to see who is the best at… well, I don’t know what, actually. The contest actually only nominally involves actual styling and cutting, and is more a revue of over the top skits that attempt to out “camp” one another. Oddly themed, elaborately choreographed, and each boasting a production budget of a small, Off Broadway musical, these routines are loud, bawdy, outrageous and just plain weird.

One seemed to be circus themed, and had the stylist swinging upside down from a trapeze while she cut hair. Another had some sort of aquatic aspect that ended with hair being cut in an aquarium that had been wheeled onto stage. The winner’s routine involved a bevy of showgirl dancers and triumphant finale featuring a college marching band.

I’m not sure the inclusion of this competition adds anything germane to the actual arguments of Good Hair – the scenes of the hair-battled bookend the film, but for no discernible reason, maybe because there was no other place to stick them. I’m glad it’s there, nonetheless. It’s one of the most totally confounding and brilliant things I’ve seen in quite a bit, and actually would constitute a worthy documentary in and of itself. It’s that good.

Good Hair’s only real extra is a passable commentary track with Chris Rock and producer Nelson George. While I never really tire of listening to Rock riff and go off on tangents and tirades, here he mostly just sticks what’s on screen, which, for a documentary, seems especially redundant.

RATING 7 / 10