Saturday, March 27, 2010

Good Hair: Grade A

Good Hair (2009)
Chris Rock. Director Jeff Stilson.

In this documentary, Rock explores the world of hair styling for African-American women. He interviews numerous prominent figures, from Kerry Washington to Maya Angelou (and even Al Sharpton), about why they use hair relaxer (sodium hydroxide, a nasty and toxic chemical) to straighten their hair, when they first started doing it, and how they feel about it.

There is also a section showing a huge chemical factory in Atlanta that produces such hair products and runs a beauty school for women to work with African-American hair. There is a brief trip to Chennai (Madras), India to investigate where human hair comes from for “weaves,” the hairpieces many women wear. There were a couple of interviews of black men who discussed what it was like to be with a woman whose hair you were never allowed to touch. The film ends with an annual, national black hair stylists convention, competition and trade fair, which is actually mostly theatrical spectacle and wholesale product promotion, and not much about hair styling, but it allows the film to end on a high note of color, music, and dancing.

I found the documentary completely fascinating, at times horrifying, and often funny. I felt a strong sense of racial divide, since white people are only vaguely aware of the black hair industry and what goes on. Of course it is obvious that movie stars and other entertainers straighten their hair and wear hairpieces. Anyone who was alive in the “afro ‘70s” remembers the original look. But for most of us, especially males, hair products and hair styling, are simply not topics worthy of much attention. Rock’s contribution is to focus attention on the magnitude of the black hair industry (billions of dollars annually), its exploitative nature (nearly all the black hair product companies are white-owned), the widespread extent of black hair straightening treatment, its high cost to individuals, its effect on children and on interpersonal relationships, and its health and safety risks.

These are all important topics that have remained outside the mainstream consciousness. Quite a few of the interviewees were visibly embarrassed to talk about hair treatments in the black culture, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, but suggest some kind of racial tension.

Rock does not attempt to provide any answers. He does not ask, nor do interviewees say, why they feel it is necessary to straighten black hair, except “to be beautiful,” which of course begs the question, why is straight hair more “beautiful” than curly hair? I think we all know that answer to that question anyway. It is media (commercial) manipulation of the country’s norms and values and the failure of the education system to instill critical thinking skill. It’s the same manipulation that makes hemlines go up and down, cars to go in an out of fashion, and people believe that “fast food” is really food. That would be a different documentary, maybe one presented by Noam Chomsky. Rock found a compromise between the need to raise important issues of personal values and the need to entertain an audience with lightweight media fluff. In that regard, the documentary is a masterpiece.

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