People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, March 19, 2010
  DVD Review: Good Hair
Good Hair is a documentary produced, co-written and narrated by comedian Chris Rock about black hair, and more specifically black women’s hair. It struck me as a bit of an odd subject for a full-length documentary when I first heard about the project, but it turns out to be a fascinating subject for many reasons, and I could have happily watched a much longer version that went into even greater detail about weaves, relaxer and the Bronner Bros. Hair Show in Atlanta. (I could watch a two-hour documentary of just Ice-T talking to a camera about whatever’s on his mind.)

Good Hair begins with Rock trying to answer his daughter’s question of why doesn’t she have “good hair.” It’s a cute premise that allows Rock to narrate the film in a much more personal manner than usual, which is perfect for a comedian (it also allows him to be honest and funny about what he learns during the film), and it also roots the film in something real, making the movie something of a personal journey. The idea is that Rock is investigating the concept of “good hair,” which basically means straight hair, which is not natural to black women. Good Hair is about the lengths black women (and, as Rock says, some men, like Prince or Michael Jackson) will go to in pursuit of good hair.

A lot of the best parts of Good Hair are the celebrity interviews. Rock and company interviewed dozens of black stars about their hair, from actresses like Nia Long, Raven Symoné to rappers like Salt N’ Pepa, Eve and the aforementioned Ice-T and cultural figures like Reverend Al Sharpton and Dr. Maya Angelou. Everyone is hilarious and compelling, particularly Sharpton, who first got his hair straightened, we learn, in the ‘early 80s when he went with James Brown to visit the White House to visit Ronald Regan, or Maya Angelou, who didn’t try relaxer until she was 70. And Pepa’s famous asymmetrical haircut from the video for Salt N’ Pepa’s breakthrough single, ‘Push It’? Turns out Pepa had to shave half her head because of a relaxer mishap.

Like Rock’s comedy, Good Hair seems light and funny on its surface, but there’s an undercurrent of real intelligence here. He’s not just talking about hair, but the social and economic issues surrounding it, from the health hazards of regularly using relaxer (which, as it turns out, is an insanely dangerous chemical that can literally erode a tin can into nothing in about four hours), to the cultural implications of black women pursuing a beauty standard that essentially aims to make them look white, to the economic impact of the importance of good hair (black women can spend upwards of $1,000 on a weave, in some cases when they’re simultaneously struggling to put food on the table), to the hair-smuggling trade in India, to the fact that, as much as black hair is a multi-billion-dollar industry – several people in the film mention the black community spends more on hair products than just about any other cultural group – it’s dominated on the business side of things by non-blacks. All of this stuff gets covered, but at no point does Good Hair feel preachy or like Rock has an axe to grind. These things are just presented, and he seems happy to let the audience make of these observations what they will.

Most importantly, Good Hair is funny. Rock, arguably the smartest and funniest stand-up comic working today, is brilliant, but he’s intelligent enough to know when to stay in the background. He wisely lets the humor come about naturally from the interview subjects. In the sections that are explicitly about the Bronner Bros. show, he profiles a handful of competing stylists, all of whom are in some way ridiculous (as is the competition itself, the winner of which receives a boxing-style title belt), but the film isn’t feels mean-spirited nor does it feel like Rock and company are mocking their subjects.

As a person of mixed race, I also grew up with kinky hair that I wished was straight, so many of the personal stories that the interview subjects tell struck a chord with me (I wished for long, flowing locks when I was 6, but alas, that was not in the cards for me), but at the same time Good Hair is a glimpse into a world I knew literally nothing about, and I found it utterly absorbing. Regardless of your level of knowledge about, or interest in, hair, Good Hair is a highly entertaining film, and I recommend it.



The only bonus feature on the Good Hair DVD is a commentary track from Rock and producer Nelson George. It’s a really funny and entertaining track – George holds his own fairly well with Rock, an actual professional comedian, but mostly plays straight man or provides producer-y nuggets of information to counterbalance Rock’s cracking wise – and I felt like I learned even more about the subject after listening to it. My problem with the disc is that Rock and George repeatedly mention in the commentary other features that will be included on the DVD (additional interview footage, etc.), but alas, none of it is included. It’s too bad, as the commentary track is great, but the empty promise of more hilarious interviews with Sharpton and Ice-T and others ends up being sort of annoying. Otherwise, this is a great documentary and a nice DVD.

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