Good Hair – Movie Review
DEEP ARE THE ROOTS
by Pamela A. Lewis
published October 16, 2009
now playing nationwide
About two days before his new film, Good Hair, opened nationwide,
comedian Chris Rock did the unthinkable to Oprah as the guest on her show: he thrust all
ten of his fingers into the thick, long (and straightened) carpet of her hair, letting them alternately dwell and meander through it as
if trying to uncover some longstanding secret. Seconds before, Rock had sworn that Ms.
Winfrey had at least a few faux locks hidden within her luxuriant tresses; he was wrong, and his face clearly registered defeat while
his host threw him a triumphant stare. “I ain’t never done that to a black woman before,”
declared Rock, drawing the kind of knowing laughter with which his audiences typically reward him.
I, too, laughed heartily at his remark, and spent a good bit of my viewing time of Good Hair laughing at many of the scenes and observations by Rock and other guests in this film that
takes on the multi-million-dollar hair care industry, an aspect of African-American culture that has not always been a laughing
Inspired by the innocent question of one of his daughters as to why she had
“bad hair” – that is, hair incapable of swinging freely like that of her white schoolmates – Rock produced this documentary, if not to
fully answer his child’s question, as a way to find out what is at the root (pun definitely intended) of so many African American women
who pour thousands of dollars into having their hair straightened.
In reaching that answer, Chris corrals a wide range of personalities, from
neighborhood hairdressers who fetch as much as $1,000 and more to give a woman a “weave,” to high-end stylists who command even greater
sums to work their magic on clients willing to dole out humble teacher or grad-school earnings to acquire that must-have
hairdo. Higher-profile figures, such as the redoubtable Al Sharpton (who for years has had
his hair straightened, and was inspired, we learn, by the late soul singer James Brown), rapper Ice-T, and poet Maya Angelou, all weigh in
to offer their views about the complicated relationship that black people, especially women, have had and continue to have with their
The phenomenon of the hairdresser competition, as seen in the Bernard Bonner show in
Atlanta, Georgia, is both the centerpiece and concluding moment of the film that brings into high relief the baffling, intriguing, and
creative spirit of the black hair care industry.
While much is to be learned from a mega-event such as the Bonner hair show, it is when Rock speaks one-on-one
with celebs and ordinary people – including children who are still in elementary school and have had their hair relaxed since the age
of two or three – that uncomfortable but important questions rise to the surface, such as those touching on racial identity, spending
choices, and effects on black male-female relationships.
Chris Rock’s fearless interactions with his subject matter and his subjects are what bring the viewer into close
contact with issues that many African Americans might prefer to keep within their community: for example, why people who have modest
incomes would sacrifice their resources to have what are essentially dangerous chemicals applied to their hair; that black women would
sooner endure the time and discomfort of hair relaxing than go through childbirth; and the fact that many black women willingly place
limits on sexual intimacy in order to maintain their hair – much to the disgruntlement and frustration of black men. Rock’s visit to a
Harlem barber shop that reveals this is one of the sharpest scenes of the film.
Rock digs deeper by going as far as India to reveal that the hairweave industry’s reach is long and, not
surprisingly, money-driven. Hair is India’s biggest export. There, men, women, and children, in a religious ritual known as the “tonsure,” sacrifice their
tresses to the god who demands them as a sign of self-denial by those who have their heads shorn. Unbeknownst to these practitioners, however, is that their locks end up in Los Angeles, reincarnated
as weave pieces or wigs for the thousands of black women who eagerly await them and are prepared to pay big bucks to wear
them. Attempting to give his people’s hair its due, Rock tries to sell plastic bags full
of African American hair to some Asian hair care shop merchants, only to be met every time with withering refusals. “Nobody is wearing kinky hair anymore,” points out a young black female shop assistant, an
observation which would seem to settle once and for all what constitutes “bad” hair.
Or perhaps not. Maya Angelou opines that “Hair is a woman’s glory
and you share that glory with your family.” She offers no qualifications or
distinguishing marks for that glory. Coupling humor with honesty, Chris Rock has performed
a valuable service by casting a bright light on a (pardon the expression) tangled topic, prodding people to engage each other and
themselves in a useful discussion about self-image and the trade-offs resulting from the choices one makes. Straight or kinky, it’s a discussion well worth having.
pamelalewis @ stageandcinema.com