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.)
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.
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