So once again we have survived.

Good Hair

tn_goodhairMan, this movie made me feel naive. It’s a documentary about black women’s hair, and it’s not really made for a white audience, it seems mainly designed to inspire discussion about beauty standards among the black community. But it was also fascinating for a white dude like me, and maybe more surprising. I had no idea. I never really thought about some of this stuff.

The director is Jeff Stilson, a writer for Letterman, The Chris Rock Show, Ali G, etc. But the movie is in the point of view of Chris Rock, who narrates and goes around talking to celebrities, hair stylists and experts. He explains that one of his young daughters asked him why she didn’t have “good hair,” and this sends him on a journey to understand why so many black women grow up hating the way their hair grows naturally. He explores straightening combs, relaxant and weaves, asking questions that draw out the absurdity of it all but rarely judging or directly commenting. Though sometimes the look on his face says it all.

Seriously, it's a documentary, not a BARBER SHOP rip off.
Seriously, it’s a documentary, not a BARBER SHOP rip off.

There’s an ongoing storyline that’s a little less pointed, but really interesting. They follow a group of hairstylists who compete at cutting hair on stage at a major hair industry convention. They have to have music, choreography, themes, in one case there’s a 70 person marching band involved. This is where the movie gets some of its funniest characters. There’s even a white gay guy who’s an expert with black women’s hair, and who decides for some reason to get his first botox injections on camera.

The style is similar to Michael Moore’s movies or RELIGULOUS, with lots of funny lines in the narration, stock footage and media clips cleverly edited in, and satirical stunts to get some of the points across. After talking to hair stylists about relaxant and visiting a factory in Ohio where it’s made Rock gets a demonstration from a white chemist about the chemical it’s made out of. When Rock says, “You know people put this in their hair, right?” the chemist is taken aback. “What!? Why would they do that?”

Yeah, that's more like it.
Yeah, that’s more like it.

The part that caught me off guard though was the weaves. You don’t really think about it. All these beautiful black actresses and singers who have straight hair – huh, go figure, it’s not theirs. It’s not even straightened, it’s a wig creation meticulously sewn over her own hair, it costs thousands of dollars. Raven Symone (later episodes of the Cosby Show) talks about how picky she is about hers, she doesn’t want it to look waxy. But man, I’d prefer plastic to what most of these women use: “real human hair” imported from India. Rock is trying to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, so he does the logical thing – he goes to India to find where Good Hair grows. I guess I’ll treat what he finds out as a SPOILER, even though it’s real life. He finds out that most of the hair comes from a Hindu temple where people shave their heads as a religious sacrifice. Then the temple sells it. Rock says they have no idea that the vanity they’re shunning for their religion is being sold and flown around the world to be sewn on the heads of “doctors, lawyers, even strippers on the pole.”

The movie is not an all-out indictment. Rock seems to genuinely try to be understanding. He does find that one of the relaxant companies is still black owned, so it’s not total exploitation. The women he talks to about the weaves are very candid with him, they have a sense of humor about it and he doesn’t make them look stupid. And when Al Sharpton told the story of the first time he straightened his hair (at the request of James Brown) I thought shit, if that was me I probly would do it too.

These are intelligent people, they can do what they want or what makes them feel good about themselves. But it just seems like a bum deal that they live in a culture that pressures them to go through physical pain and financial strain to look good, or especially to replace a part of themselves with a part of somebody else that that person grew naturally for free and then gave up. I mean, I know they don’t give a shit what I think but man, I’ve seen so many beautiful women with natural hair. Sure, Beyonce* and some of those women look great with straight hair, but they’d probly look great without it too. I personally think an afro is extremely attractive on a woman. And dreadlocks… don’t you remember how good Halle Berry looked in BULWORTH?

Ah shit, that’s what the problem is. We’re the problem. They don’t want guys like me and Senator Bulworth following them around all the time, and I don’t blame them. This is not really addressed in the movie, but I can take a hint. I’m thankful to Chris Rock for pushing me in the right direction to come to this understanding. I would like to apologize for scaring women away from afros.

Anyway, it all starts with Chris Rock worrying about his daughters, that’s what makes it sweet (not just making fun of somebody) and what makes it kind of a sad story. We all trust Salt and Pepa can make their own decisions, but when you see the little girl who tells Rock that she doesn’t like getting a perm but that his daughter should do it because “you’re ‘posed to” you’ll understand why it’s upsetting.

*the movie does not claim Beyonce has a weave. I have no idea if she does or not, I’m new to this.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 17th, 2010 at 12:31 am and is filed under Documentary, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

22 Responses to “Good Hair”

  1. Not seen it, but I love the idea of GOOD HAIR. I mean why not? I kinda dig these movies which prob something mundane as the entry point to a larger more important issue.

    Remember MALCOLM X when Denzel before his conversion would buy all that hair shit to make his style look more white?

    Damn

  2. I kept expecting them to use the shot of Malcolm dunking his head in the toilet because his scalp is burning. That’s such a perfect symbol, I always wondered if Malcolm and Alex Haley made it up for the autobiography or if it really happened.

  3. hey vern,
    i ve seen a trailer of this on the apple movie site and since my girlfriend is Hair Stylist she wanted to see it. But that was a really good and interesting documentary. I had no idea how much of an issue that was. Its really kind of shocking when you see how much money those not very rich looking people spend to replace their hair or put those chemicals on the heads of their children.
    I always like it when documentarys change my perspective on certain things and this one really did when i switch on tv and start to think about that people like Beyonce are running around for like over 10 years with other peoples hair on their head and a whole generation is admiring that look when its all so fake.

  4. […] He explains that one of his young daughters asked him why she didn’t have “good hair ,” and this sends him on a journey to understand why so many black women grow up hating the way their hair grows naturally. He explores straightening … Read the original post: Good Hair | The Life and Art of Vern […]

  5. My favourite line in the review: ” I would like to apologize for scaring women away from afros”.

    Vern is the best.

    I haven’t seen this yet. Does it offer up any theories on why black women (and Al Sharpton) are doing this ? Is it just a simple issue of trying to look white ?

  6. pheteesh: My two cents: it’s not that these women (and Reverend Al) are trying to look white so much as they are trying to minimize the visibility of attributes that have historically been classified as ugly by an oppressive dominant culture, attributes like curly hair or dark skin or the shape of the nose.

    That may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but there is a difference.

  7. Splitting hairs = classic pun Jareth!

  8. And I guess it should be saidf that hair isn’t always about oppression; it can be a site of resistence too.

    Back in the early 1990s, when a lot of the white grunge kids were wearing dreadlocks, a friend of mine grew his afro out long enough that he could walk around with a pick comb sticking out of the side of his head. When asked why he did that, he’d always say he wanted the next cultural appropriation to be more difficult to achieve.

    He told me he got the idea from something Easy E said, though I’ve never found the source.

  9. This was one of my absolute favorite movies from last year, bar none. It’s just so damn interesting, especially to a white guy like me. Virtually everything he talks about in the film was news to me, but the real genius of the film is its interest in the globalism of good hair. The way Rock and director Stilson make sense out of the tangled web of cultures, economies, personalities, and societies involved (and bounce so easily from the intensly personal to the staggeringly panoramnic) is nothing short of masterful. It’s just relentlessly fascinating, nevermind funny. The one thing which diminishes it slightly is the storyline about the hair competition, which is interesting in itself but only tangentially tied into most of the points the film is interested in exploring.

    Jareth — I think you’re right, but I like the movie all the more for not fishing that point out of someone or handing it to us in the narration. It’s in the subtext, but the way the movie presents it you can kind of draw your own conclusion about what these women are trying to achieve (it helps that Rock is interviewing women who seem comfortable and happy with themselves — they don’t want to be white, they’re doing their own thing).

  10. I got a six inch Jewfro right now so I can relate.

  11. Mr. Subtlety: Absolutely agree with you on the subtlety of the film, and on how interesting the information itself is. There’s obviously a racial aspect to the film, but also a gender aspect: even black guys don’t know a lot about what goes on in the salon.

    It’s also nice to see Chris Rock involved in this kind of film. I always suspected that his talent could reach outside of traditional standup comedy or generic comedic vehicles. Can you imagine how many Chris Tucker type scripts he must have turned down over the years? This film and Chapelle’s BLOCK PARTY are brave and charming.

    Gwai Lo: Keep an eye on that thing, will you: if it gets to Art Garfunkel size we’ll send in a team to dig you out.

  12. Jareth — isn’t it glorious to see a genuine talent finally put to good use? I mean, we all knew Rock was the real deal from his classic stand-up, but his films just haven’t quite figured out what to do with him. Guys (and gals) who are really unique tend to languish for years in a limbo of genre fare and iffy execution before someone finally “gets” them… see, Viggo Mortenssen, Dave Chappelle, Steve Bucemi, John Leguizamo, etc.

  13. And William H. Macy too. Poor bastard was on both ANOTHER WORLD and KATE & ALLIE before someone figured out what to do with him.

    I hope one day someone finds a perfect vehicle for Snoop Dogg too. Not to bash SOUL PLANE or anything, but Snoop can do better.

  14. Jareth – to be fair, Chris Tucker is alot better at turning down scripts than Chris Rock is. In the 12 years since RUSH HOUR all Tucker’s done is two sequels. Rock has done plenty more bad movies. I think both of them are capable of better than what people come up with for them.

    But I agree otherwise. I hope Rock does some more documentaries if the ideas come to him.

  15. I think Everybody Hates Chris has earned Rock an extreme amount of creative slack, if only for finally giving Terry Crews a role where he has something to do and an actual character to play, which you can’t really say about other non-Idiocracy parts he plays.

  16. Vern: I didn’t make my point very well. What I meant is that both Tucker and Rock are probably offered numerous scripts that ask for broad, wacky black characters. I don’t know if I’d blame either actor for the failure of imagination in the industry that produces these scripts.

    Ultimately, I don’t know which is preferable: Tucker who works only occasionally, but picks weak, insulting roles, or Rock, who works a lot, tries out different stuff, has hits and misses. I don’t doubt that both men are talented; I think Rock has given us more of an opportunity to see what he is capable of, warts and all.

  17. caruso_stalker217

    February 18th, 2010 at 1:04 am

    I asked my sort-of-before-she-tore-my-heart-a-new-one-girlfriend what the deal is with black women and their hair. She said she straightens her hair because it’s easier to manage and isn’t all frizzy and shit. I don’t really give a fuck either way.

  18. Brendan, what about his role as Common’s brother’s dead body in TERMINATOR: SALVATION? That was a good one.

  19. POOTIE TANG is an underrated masterpiece. There, I said it.

    I’m gonna have to see this. I’ll get it in Netflix stat.

    Good comments above. Wait, somebody figured out what to do with John Leguizamo?? I just wish somebody would give him a show on the WB so we won’t have to see him in any movies ever again.

  20. Agreed on POOTIE TANG. To this day, thinking of the “Pootie don’t go!” scene makes me smile.

  21. Ah shit Vern, you’re right how I could forget that one? Jeez, all this talk about how 500 Days of Summer gets snubbed by Oscar, and no mention of the true travesty, the lack of a Terry Crews nom.

  22. sine your rine ona piddy kine!

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