Getting the ‘Hair’ story straight
In the new documentary “Good Hair,’’ Chris Rock finds great comedy in what still lingers as a tragedy. The black compulsion to straighten, lengthen, and lusterize hair comes from an institutional preoccupation with whiteness. And it doesn’t feel like a vestigial preoccupation, either. The black hip-hop music video star Melyssa Ford tells Rock she grew up bitter that she never had her white mother’s hair. By her own accounting, she now spends about $18,000 a year trying to approximate it with weaves and relaxers.
The film was spurred by Rock’s dilemma over how to care for his two young daughters’ little afro puffs. Would he keep them natural? Would he have them relaxed? “Good Hair’’ is the antic, free-ranging culmination of his crisis.
Rock tours the country’s barber shops and beauty parlors, interviewing people about why they do what they do to their hair and the extremes they take to maintain it. He drops in on Atlanta’s annual Bronner Bros. International Hair Show and devotes what becomes a digressive but entertaining sideshow to the convention’s farcical hair battle, which is part talent show, part circus, total hot mess. He considers the economic politics (the film explains that Asians have a lock on most of the black hair business) and talks to four teenage girls, three of whom, depressingly enough, can’t conceive of wearing a business suit and natural hair. (The very term “hair relaxer,’’ which is the lye that straightens kinky hair, has always been a joke. It relaxes white people, says the comedian Paul Mooney.)
Rock spends a scene with a “chemical genius’’ who demonstrates what sodium hydroxide - relaxer’s chemical name - does to a soda can (disintegrate it) but who has no idea that for decades black people have been putting this stuff on their scalps. (In parlor parlance, relaxers are “creamy crack.’’) He visits the Reverend Al Sharpton who’s been straightening his hair since the Reagan administration and who finds his usual rousing ways to lament destructive black behavior, even as he seems to contradict himself. And, most crucially, he talks to more than a dozen black entertainers who speak at length (sorry) about their own struggles. Some of them even discuss their own weaves, which takes a lot more guts than Andy Pettitte or Alex Rodriguez telling us they used steroids.
It’s important to show the degree to which these black stars - Salt -N- Pepa, Raven-Symoné, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Meagan Good, Eve, Tracie Thoms, Sarah Jones, and, best of all, Nia Long - struggle with their hair and how, by extension (sorry again), it complicates their personal lives. Long says taking a shower is a more intimate act for her than sex. The exasperated black men Rock talks to prove she’s hardly alone. One guy even suggests that black women’s hair issues are so stressful for him that he’d rather date white women. They’ll let you pull their hair.
There’s a lot of Michael Moore’s ambulatory spirit in this film, which the comedian Jeff Stinson directed. There’s also a lot of the damning comedic commentary that made Rock’s old HBO series so urgent. Rock could have devoted an entire hours-long project to that subject and focused solely on the history and sociology of African-Americans and their hair. (Ken Burns, don’t you dare.) But what this film does in 95 minutes is just as compelling.
It looks, sometimes seriously, at the gamut of the black hair industry, daring, at some point, to fly to India and visit a sweatshop which supplies America shops with premium hair. Rock watches an Indian baby have its hair shorn in a head-shaving, spiritual purification ritual called tonsure. We see women toiling over piles of hair, raking it through an apparatus then bundling it. This time Rock sees a gag: that’s him bent over, in mock-agony, raking hair with the sweatshoppers, too.
In Moore’s spirit, I wonder how much more powerful (and useful) these sequences would be had he dragged along, say, actress Raven-Symoné, who more or less says all that’s stopping her from expanding her empire into hair weaves (weaves make up 60-70 percent of the $9 billion-a-year black hair-care industry) is a direct contact to India. But that trip does produce a brilliant passage in which he tries to sell actual black hair on the streets of South Los Angeles and doesn’t make a dime. It’s a funny, heartbreaking thing to watch. If you arrive at “Good Hair’’ never having thought about the complexities of black hair, bring a notebook. If you are a black woman wearing a weave, bring a tissue.