Good Hair

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

The difference between black folk and white is so clichéd a staple of American stand-up, that even jokes about how hackneyed the material is, is hackneyed itself. But with this documentary, Chris Rock explores one thing that certainly sets black women apart from any other demographic: their hair.

‘This is the blackest movie ever made,’ the comedian said by way of introduction at a recent screening in London. ‘Not since Roots has there been anything this black,’ Then, by way of afterthought: ‘But white people are going to enjoy it too.’

And enjoyable Good Hair certainly is, even if it never quite gets to the, erm, roots of the questions it raises.

Rock said he was inspired to make the film when his toddler daughter asked him if she was going to have ‘good hair’ – which got him thinking what the expression meant, and how she came to be concerned by it.

The answer seems to be: straight, European or Asian-style hair. As comic Paul Mooney ‘When our hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed; if your hair is nappy, they’re not happy’ Though there’s certainly the sense that the extremes to which black women go for the sake of their barnet is more about themselves – and the fear of other black women’s judgement – than it is for white folks’ benefit.

The amount that’s spent on deAfroing hair is almost as eye-watering as applying the relaxer – a corrosive chemical based on hydrogen peroxide that’s dubbed ‘creamy crack’ because once you’re on it, you’ll never leave. Black people comprise 12 per cent of America’s population, but account for 80 per cent of the multi-billion-dollar hair producy industry. Nor does the money stay in the black community – as most the companies are white- or Asian- owned, in what Rev Al Sharpton calls in the film ‘economic retardation’.

At a regular salon, Rock meets ordinary women with modestly-paid jobs who will think nothing of spending $1,000 or more on having their hair fixed, while the three-year-old accepting relaxer as a fact of life is a sad indicator of how ingrained the orthodoxy that hair must be straight has become.

The other part of the hair equation is the weave – real human hair, imported from Asia, that’s attached to the genuine follicles. Rock travels to India to see the religious ceremony called tonsure, where Buddhists are shaved as an act of self-sacrifice. But not all the hair is so freely given. One expert tells of women being ‘scalped’ as they sleep.

Rock’s entertaining investigation of this side of the industry is the most revealing aspect of the film, while there’s plenty of witty insight from talking heads such as KRS-One, Ice-T and actress Tracie Thoms, whose decision to leave her hair naturally curly is seen controversial. Maya Angelou is an especially funny interviewee… if the writing dries up, she could always turn to stand-up.

More commentary comes from the men in the barbershop – that hub of any black community – who admit they would never dare even touch a black woman’s hair, and concede that can mean a lack of intimacy.

Rock largely lets his subjects speak for themselves, and is a master of the reaction shot. Careful editing lets every inadvertently funny statement hang for just the right amount of time. But mostly his commentary is in voiceover, making this seem like a very strange extended episode of his sitcom Everybody Hates Chris.

All the low-level investigative work is hung around the Bonner Brothers Hair Show, a massive trade extravaganza that features as its centrepiece a flashy brush-off between four leading stylists. Although these larger-than-life characters are entertaining in a reality show ‘look at the flamboyant nutters’ kind of a way, it’s rather a sideshow to the more pertinent points Rock hints at, but never tackles full-on.

Some of the social issues are skirted over, as Rock lets several points pass (though he rarely lets a joke escape so easily); but despite its gaps, Good Hair is a frequently uproariously funny look at a subject not often aired in public. Those who know the truth will laugh with recognition, those who don’t will laugh with incredulity. A win-win situation.

Review by: Steve Bennett

  • Good Hair is released in the UK this Friday (June 25)

Review date: 23 Jun 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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