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Movie Review: Good Hair

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I’m among the whitest people you’ll ever meet. Therefore I felt a little like Professor Berry in the Chris Rock-starring documentary Good Hair. When he learns that many black women routinely apply sodium hydroxide to their hair in order to “relax” and straighten it, he says, stunned, “Oh, I would not recommend that.” Too late, bucko. Unbeknownst to Professor Berry, myself, and I’d wager more than a few other white folks, black hair is a $9-billion-a-year industry made up largely of chemical relaxers and weaves, all in an effort to distance black hair from its natural, nappy state. To make it whiter.

The idea for the movie, directed by first-timer Jeff Stilson, came to Rock one day when his daughter asked him, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” The idea that his daughter was growing up thinking that her natural hair somehow wasn’t “good” led Rock to investigate where this mentality sprang from. Indeed, the film is at its best when Rock is operating as his usual affable social commentator, asking serious questions about race in a lighthearted manner. Rock talks to various black celebrities, among them Maya Angelou, Tracie Thoms, Nia Long, Raven-Symoné, and Salt-n-Pepa, a shocking number of whom flaunt weaves as their real hair.

That hair is largely Indian, and the movie has what is probably its strongest segment when Rock travels to India to get the scoop on how Indian hair makes its way onto the heads of African-Americans. It turns out that Indian women have their heads shaved during a religious ceremony and then, unbeknownst to them, the church sells it at an enormous profit. As Rock says, financially, it’s “second only to the Vatican.” There’s a harrowing scene where a wailing baby is held down as its head is shorn. Even Rock, who spends much of the movie sporting an overabundance of knowing glances as his subjects talk, looks like he wasn’t prepared for this.

Still, Rock and Stilson never really take a hard angle on the subject, which is somewhat unfortunate. To this white man, at least, it’s a very educational and occasionally disturbing look at what is really just another form of economic exploitation and oppression (especially since most of the money is made by whites and Asians), but the filmmakers feel like they’re holding back. I don’t necessarily expect Michael Moore-style outrage or stunts (though at one point Rock does go on a street corner trying to sell natural black hair), but every time it seems like they could go for the jugular, they sit back and crack a joke. Rock himself is far tamer than usual, probably because he was going for a PG-13.

Summing up the mixed intentions of the movie is its anchor, the Bronner Bros. Competition, an annual hairstyling event which has about as much to do with hairstyling as the Winter Olympics. It’s all about outsized personalities and elaborate stage productions; one competitor hangs upside down and cuts hair, another cuts hair underwater. It’s extremely ridiculous, and is a bit at odds with the movie’s more sociological side, especially since Rock never really lampoons the competition or those involved. No matter how funny or entertaining it is, the movie is ultimately going to end up feeling slight. But it is funny and entertaining.

The main laughs of course come from Rock himself, tame or not, and his interactions with average black men and women. Women on modest budgets spend up to $1,000 to get their hair relaxed. One woman flies across several states to be treated by a certain stylist. There’s a hilarious candid chat at a barbershop which reveals that hair plays a far more crucial part in the politics of black dating than I ever could have thought possible. And Rock, no matter where he is or who he’s talking to, always seems open to others' thoughts and opinions, creating a comfortable atmosphere, even if he sometimes lacks focus.

At the end, Rock comes to the conclusion that the mere fact that black women can choose to do whatever they wish with their hair represents social progress, a point which I guess can’t be argued with. But after all I’d learned, I was just thinking, “Really?”

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About Arlo J. Wiley