Good Hair

Poster
2009
Jeff Stilson

7/10 (exploitative; superficial; cowardly)

This is a fascinating documentary on the current state of the black hair industry that could have actually been important if the subject had been taken more seriously by narrator/protagonist Chris Rock. Expecting too much from the comedian? Perhaps, but a less glib treatment would have been a welcome surprise, and extremely utile for the expression of the subject matter.

Rock allegedly got the idea for the film when one of his daughters asked him why she doesn’t have “good hair,” which is to say white-person hair (silky smooth and bouncy). So the film starts out as a crusade of sorts to find out what lies behind this perception of natural African hair as “bad.” From there Rock examines all aspects of the black hair industry, focusing especially on the dangers of the chemical used to relax black hair and the billion-dollar human hair trade (most of the hair used in extensions comes from India or SE Asia).

At least this is where the film is most interesting, as well as in his absurd interviews with hypocritical African-Americans. Too often he gets side-tracked by flashy but ultimately irrelevant phenomenons (the Brommers Brothers convention in Atlanta, the Hair Styling school graduation, various comedy stunts that seem out of place). At one point he takes a bag of “black hair” around L.A. to try and sell it to extension stores, in a stunt that reeks of Michael Moore.

As it is, we end up with a cross between Moore and Borat: Rock playing a tricky subject for laughs at the expense of his invited guests. He interviews a wide range of celebrities and experts, many of them women with “good hair” for which they’ve paid thousands of dollars. But instead of challenging them outright on their hypocrisy (one of the now-rhinoplastied women from Salt-n-Pepa boasts that her weave is “100% natural”), he just raises his eyebrows to the camera. Basically, he makes fools out of a large percentage of his guests, which is just disrespectful. Whether they are fools or not is beside the point, because Rock is immoral to exploit them for his own ends (the way that Michael Moore does as well, but to a lesser extent).

One of the guests, actress Nia Long, becomes visibly uncomfortable around the halfway point of the film when she realizes that Rock has an unfavorable agenda. Others are oblivious that they are being made fun of; they provide plenty of laughs and eye-rolls for Rock and his audience.

The problem with this is that by slow-playing his absurd, hypocritical comments, Rock is doing a disservice to his audience as much as his guests. By not directly pointing out things such as the obvious absurdity of a working-class woman spending $1000 on a weave, or the cruel treatment of a 3-year-old child with a chemical burn in the name of “good hair” (an idea that stems directly from a racial inferiority complex), Rock is completely abdicating his responsibility as a conscientious observer.

Rock clearly sees a problem with the behavior of the black community on this issue, but instead of trying to actually do something about it, to change minds or revive a natural hair movement, he resorts to snide comments and sarcasm, which is to say complete passivity. I understand that this is his bread and butter, his “comic style” or what-have-you, but it’s not totally unrealistic to hope for a little growth in a maturing comedian.

It would have been nice, for example, to be a little more aggressive in the interview with Al Sharpton (who Rock quite clearly admired during their scenes together). After Sharpton railed against the utter absurdity of these poor women paying thousands of dollars to buy and wear symbols of their exploitation (“They’re wearing their exploitation!”), it would have been entirely appropriate to point out the fact that Sharpton himself has been making his hair “whiter” with a relaxer for over three decades. Hell, he made fools of almost every other interviewee in the movie, so why not the Reverend?

Perhaps such penetrating activism is too much to expect from a mere comedian. But Rock, if we’re to believe him, started this project as a means of protest against the notion of “good hair,” so if he’s got any integrity he needs to work harder to see it through to the end. Otherwise he’s confusing his goal with a primarily entertainment piece, which it shouldn’t be (again, if we’re to believe his opening statement).

In conclusion: see this film just because it’s fascinating to finally learn the “secrets” of black hair. But remember that it could have been an important statement rather than just a curious sideshow.

14 June 2010

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