Good Hair

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/09/09 00:00:00

"The straight dope on black hair."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There's a whole lot of interesting information in "Good Hair", presented well, but it wouldn't be half the movie it is without its writer/producer/star, Chris Rock. Not just because the movie was his idea - someone else likely would have made a movie about what having "good hair" means in the African-American community - but because his personality turns out to be a perfect match for the material.

Early on, Rock explains that the film has its origins in one of his daughters asking him why she doesn't have "good hair", which turns out to have a specific meaning among African-Americans, especially women, that Rock hadn't fully grasped: Straight. Silky. Fine. Basically, like a white woman's. His curiosity piqued, he sets out to learn as much about the phenomenon as he can, going from the Bronner Brothers hair care convention in Atlanta, Georgia to a temple in India, talking to celebrities, businessmen, activists, and the crowd at the local barber shop to find out what good hair means to them.

What the film shows us is not necessarily anything that has been particularly hidden, but is certainly interesting when connected over the course of an hour and a half. The numbers are downplayed, so it's almost possible to miss the comment that though African Americans make up around one eighth of the population of the United States, they are responsible for the majority of the spending on hair care. Indeed, the economics of the industry are curious, as we see that women of relatively limited means often spend thousands of dollars on their hair weaves, and very few of the businesses catering to the market are actually black-owned. Al Sharpton has a point when he talks about the community putting their repression on their heads - and that's even without demonstrating how nasty the chemicals in "relaxers" and perms are.

In the hands of some filmmakers, this film would be wall-to-wall anger, but director Jeff Stilson (who co-wrote the film with Rock and two other credited writers) and his star don't go for a strident tone. Maybe they just don't see the value in calling a large part of their target audience foolish, though it need not be so calculated. While the filmmakers will frequently insert a barbed bit of commentary into the narration or captions, the scenes where Rock interviews or converses with his subjects are almost universally friendly. Certainly, you can tell where Chris Rock (and, by extension, the film) comes down on most subjects - he doesn't hide his delight when interviewing Maya Angelou, who has never had her hair relaxed, and he's obviously alarmed at things like toddlers getting perms - but the film doesn't give a very hard sell. Rather than telling the audience what to think, it's quite content to give the audience something to think about.

Chris Rock is a big reason why this goes down easy - aside from being funny on his own, he appears to be a good interviewer. It's not surprising that he can get Ice-T to tell a good story, but his talks with actresses Nia Long and Tracie Thoms are actual conversations rather than opportunities to perform. He's also good talking with businesspeople, hairdressers, and men on the street, often getting them to say interesting things without ever feeling like he's ambushing them or setting them up.

That's not all Rock, either - Stilson, the other writers, and editors Paul Marchand and Greg Nash do a good job of putting the film together. It's quite possible that the filmmakers knew exactly what what they wanted to do before they ever shot a frame, but they certainly do a good job of making it appear that they followed their curiosity: A comment about how few of the exhibitors at Bronner Brothers are black-owned leads to a visit to the makers of Dudley's Hair Relaxer; a visit to India to find the source of the hair in weaves has a similar jump-off. When Rock brings up how many black men are attracted to white women, and whether being able to run one's fingers through their hair without disturbing the weave was a factor, it seems like something that just occurred to him. That feeling of spontaneity gives the film credit when it hits bits that seem a little forced (a skit of Rock trying to sell genuine African-American hair to salons, a hairstyling competition) - or when people bust out the n-word, which is more or less guaranteed to cut some audience members' comfort in half.

Of course, the film arguably isn't FOR white males such as myself; it's about what the desire for "good hair" costs the African-American community culturally and financially. I can't say how well it does that, just that it does a good job of putting its information together and making the experience entertaining.

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