Good Hair is a 2009 documentary by comedian Chris Rock about the socio, economic and political importance of hair among black women. Inspired by his little daughter’s question of whether or not she has good hair, Rock embarks on a journey that takes him from Atlanta, Los Angeles and even India, as he examines the lucrative business of black hair.
For those outside the African-American community, this movie will aim a spotlight on an aspect of American culture that will be totally foreign – much like white people’s misunderstanding of black churches. Rock anticipating white audiences, gives the viewers some historical context of black hair, and includes interviews with Dr. Maya Angelou and the Rev. Al Sharpton, that balances the light, jocular tone of a potentially serious topic.
Serving as a backdrop to his documentary is the Bronner Bros International Hair Show, an annual hair convention and contest held in Atlanta, Georgia. The show is part trade show and part pageant, as competing hair stylists create elaborate stage shows that involve dancers, bands, complicated themes and skits, and costumes. A judging panel a la American Idol, judge these shows on various rules and criteria. Rock interviews follows four contestants, including a white hair stylist who has an competitive edge over the others.
To give some heft, Rock talks about the journey of hair weave. It’s become somewhat of a cliché for some to say they’ve got “Indian” in them, if they’ve got luxurious black hair. Well, according to Rock’s film, there’s a reason for this – good quality hair weave comes from India. Rock flies over to India and visits a factory where men and women manufacture hair weaves from bales of hair collected from temples during ceremonial rituals when women shave their heads. The fact that these donors don’t get a penny from this enterprise is pretty galling.
Also, eye-opening is the fact that despite the audience for black hair care products is black women, the majority of the companies that produce these products are white-owned corporations. Sharpton smartly sums it up as black women donning modes of economic and social oppression whenever they put on these wigs or use these products.
Rock also talks to a group of popular entertainers that includes rappers, actresses, models, as well as doctors and social critiques. Among the most canny subjects is Raven-Symone. The former child star accurately described “relaxed” hair as “relaxing” for others – namely, uptight white people. Comic legend Paul Mooney also chimed in on this theme with the pithy line, “If your hair is relaxed, then white folks are happy, if your hair is nappy they are not happy.”
Unfortunately, Rock skirts the reason behind the reason that natural hair styles are viewed with anxiety among mainstream white culture. In one telling scene, Rock is talking to a group of high school seniors – all except one of them has processed hair. When Rock suggests that natural hair styles may be an obstacle to a lucrative career, the young ladies with the processed hair concurred – sadly, the one young lady with natural hair, remained silent while the other young women questioned the propriety of a professional woman with natural hair.
Good Hair has some serious problems, though: when discussing the high prices of paying for these hair products, Rock inadvertently makes black women appear foolish, frivolous and ridiculous. He also spills into tired bouts of the battle of the sexes when suggesting that tension among black men and women can be attributed to resentment of having to support the expensive hair habits of wives and girlfriends. Rock accidentally creates rukus at a barber shop when a young black gentleman admits his preference of white women over black women, setting off loud and impassioned responses from the people around. There is also a slightly disturbing feeling that Rock is opening up something to public consumption that is private among the African-American community. Mainstream white culture has a way of misinterpreting and misunderstanding subcultures, and Good Hair provides ample opportunity for short-sighted white people to deduce that black women are vain and devoid of any financial acumen; it doesn’t hurt that Sharpton himself dresses down black women for engaging in the process. As seen by the almost universally idiotic response to the Jeremiah Wright scandal that still tends to follow the president around, when mainstream audiences are given a glimpse of the internal of a subculture, often members of that audience will come up with erroneous conclusions to satisfy their ignorance.
But having said that, Rock’s intentions are lofty: he wants to understand why the women in his life go through these sometimes painful (the chemicals in the hair relaxers were shown to eat through aluminum cans), expensive, time-consuming processes to attain a standard of beauty, that in part, has its roots in European culture. It would’ve been interesting if Rock interviewed black women in the corporate world or the realm of politics to see if they also feel the need to relax their hair to get ahead: Rock’s montage of successful black women had shots of media tycoon Oprah Winfrey and former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice – both sporting processed hair; interviews with these women would better illuminate what the young high school student was expressing when she opined that natural hair contradicts professional work attire.
A film like Good Hair will illicit a wide range of responses from the audience. Some found the film thought-provoking, others found it offensive. Rock is a smart man and he’s a genial presence, ingratiating himself to his subjects. This jovial tone carries the film, and allows it to remain enjoyable, despite the more serious moments.Good Hair doesn’t answer a whole stable of questions, but it does open up some topics for discussion which is helpful. We’re not really sure what Rock’s ultimate goal was in making this film – the ambivalence, though fits with the subject.