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A scene from GOOD HAIR (Photo: Roadside Attractions)

Directed by
Jeff Stilson
Produced by
Nelson George, Chris Rock & Kevin O’Donnell
Written by Rock, Stilson, Lance Crouther & Chuck Sklar
Released by Roadside Attractions
USA. 95 min. Rated PG-13 

Good Hair is the “Girlfriend, ya gotta see this movie!” of the year. Spurred by his young daughter’s deprecating comment about her hair, comic Chris Rock gives an entertaining and provocative tour of the permutations of African-American women with their hair. He teases out a lot of information about the hair care industry—relaxers, hair straightening perms, weaves, extensions, and profits—for a cost/benefit analysis of beauty perceptions.

He takes on relaxers first, opening with a montage of famous black women with straight hair (expect Michelle Obama to be asked about this in interviews). Women proudly remember the pain of applying relaxant as a mandatory rite-of-passage initiating them into the world of their mothers. Sandra Denton, Pepa of hip hop’s Salt-N-Pepa, reveals how a perm accident contributed to her signature asymmetrical look. Reverend Al Sharpton colorfully defends his straightened tresses, while the business side is represented by the CEO of the African-American-owned Dudley Products of North Carolina, seller of relaxers to salons for over 40 years. An informative dermatologist testifies against the product though her own hair is not seen, mysteriously hidden under colorful scarves, while a white chemist is astonished to learn that women put these powerful chemicals in their hair, let alone on young girls.

Rock moves on to wigs and weaves, claiming they make up about 65% of the $9 billion hair care revenue—a weave can retail up to $5,000—and it is fascinating when he follows the roots in India. He visits the large temples where millions of Hindus make pilgrimages at least once in their lives to offer Lord Venkateswara thanks for fulfilling their prayers by shaving their heads. Rock goes from tonsure to auction to processing and packing for the huge export business. When he tries to calculate the income to the temples per head, the dealer corrects him that hair is measured in kilos. That clicks with Rock—it’s like drugs. The Asian connection of the hair trade ties directly into the on-screen African-American resentment of the success of Asian businesses in their neighborhoods, from the wholesalers who have ties to the Indian suppliers to a disturbing they-all-look-alike conflation of Indians, Chinese, and Koreans. Rock aggravates that impression when he stages a prank of trying to sell bags of “nappy” hair to immigrant salon suppliers in Los Angeles.

Briskly edited, the comments of guys and gals amusingly emphasize that women spend all this time and money to impress each other, not men. Pretty raw interviews with denizens of barber shops and music business celebrities, including Andre Harrell and Ice-T, earned the film the PG-13 rating, and may help women get their men to join them in the audience. The anecdotes about not touching women’s hair during sex are especially frank and ribald.

While the actresses and singers interviewed, including That’s So Raven-Symoné, differ on their professional reasons for straight hair, the impressions of students that they cannot succeed in corporate America with a natural style are left unchallenged. Natural hair is briefly shown as an alternative by Tracie Thoms of TV’s Cold Case, but even her hair is streaked red. There is no discussion of how interracial backgrounds affect hair texture, or of Afrocentric braids or dreadlocks, with or without extensions. (I kept hoping to hear from Angela Davis). Rock’s wife is never seen as a role model of beauty to her daughters, though she founded a non-profit salon to help women groom for job interviews.

The primarily female African-American audience I was with laughed out loud at this spotlight on their foibles, and the documentary has already had an impact. Since its Sundance premiere, former supermodel/talk show host Tyra Banks dropped her wigs and weaves for a more natural style, and Oprah Winfrey had to defensively prove her hair bona fides, though both admitted to using relaxants. While I found even the trailer has been an icebreaker among strangers, Good Hair provides an overdue opportunity for dialogue about beauty assumptions and cosmetic choices. Nora Lee Mandel
November 2, 2009



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