Chris Rock's lighthearted documentary asks, What is Good Hair?

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 9 2009 4:04 PM

Straight Talk

Chris Rock's lighthearted documentary asks, What is Good Hair?

Chris Rock in the movie “Good Hair”.
Chris Rock in Good Hair

Since Good Hair (HBO Films), Chris Rock's new documentary on the black-hair-care industry, is all about women being frank about their own relationships to hair and race, I'll start by saying that as a white girl with limp, mousy locks, the African-American rage for hair straightening has always puzzled me. Why would anyone with thick, curly, interesting hair—hair that can be cornrowed, dreadlocked, coiled into patterns, fluffed into "naturals"—want to "relax" it chemically into an imitation of boring Anglo tresses? But I know that's a faux-naive question, one to which the answers are less aesthetic than sociopolitical: Good Hair makes the case that many black women straighten their hair to conform to the larger culture's white ideal of female beauty. Or, as Chris Rock puts it in the film's opening narration, relaxing black hair relaxes white people.

Rock was inspired to make the documentary when one of his young daughters asked him, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" Rock recruited a director (stand-up comic Jeff Stilson) and set out to find out what "good hair" meant to various black women and men: clients in L.A. beauty shops, professional hairstylists, and celebrities—including rapper Eve and actresses Nia Long, Tracie Thoms, and Raven-Symoné. Rock also traveled to India, the source of most of the human hair used in African-American salons, and to the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, a huge yearly trade convention in Atlanta that culminates in an outrageously glitzy live hairstyling contest. (Contestants cut hair upside down, underwater, and hanging from trapezes as lingerie-clad models shimmy past on a runway.)

The result is a pop documentary in the Morgan Spurlock mode, cheeky and smart without being too serious. It's clear that Rock is saddened by the ubiquity of chemically straightened hair in the black community: One of his interviewees calls hair relaxant "creamy crack," and a chemist demonstrates how the active ingredient, sodium hydroxide, is capable of melting a soda can within a few hours. A hairdresser describes mothers bringing in daughters as young as 3 to have this caustic chemical spread on their scalps. And several interviewees, including a very funny Al Sharpton, describe the burning sensation of their first "perm." (Sharpton got his at the behest of James Brown, before his first visit to the White House.)

Advertisement

But even with interviewees who own up to their dependence on "creamy crack," Rock's tone remains breezy and lighthearted. He wears an expression of bedazzled fascination as he listens to women—especially those who wear weaves, headpieces of human hair sewn or braided onto their own—describe the work, time, and money they invest in their coiffures. Rock's conversations with beleaguered men waiting for their girlfriends to finish getting their $1,000-plus hairdos, and with the rowdy clientele of an all-male black barbershop, are priceless, as is Nia Long holding forth on the touchy topic of "weave sex." Rock could have spent a little less time at the Bronner Bros. hair show—the scenes there are funny, but one-note—and a lot more in India. There's a frustratingly brief glimpse at how the shaving of hair for Hindu religious rituals provides a get-rich-quick opportunity for global hair entrepreneurs, who fly to L.A. with suitcases stuffed with shiny tresses. But the director is overly content to rely on the visual joke of Chris Rock in India, perched incongruously on the back of an ox-drawn cart.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

In the end, Good Hair is fairly neutral on the question of whether to weave or not to weave, though Rock does make the case that a much larger portion of the $9 billion black-hair-care industry should be controlled by black-owned businesses. But a montage midway through the film serves as an eye-opening reminder that virtually every famous black woman in America—Oprah, Condi Rice, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama—has spent an enormous amount of time and money turning the hair God gave her into a facsimile of someone else's.

Slate V: Reviews of Good Hair, Couples Retreat, and An Education

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 20 2014 3:12 PM Terror Next Door Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband is dangerously, violently obsessed with the neighbors.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.