Good Hair - Movie Review

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By Jonathan W. Wind

"Daddy, why don't I have good hair?"

So queries Chris Rock's daughter's after school one day, sending Chris upon a quest.

"Good Hair" is directed by established Hollywood comedy writer Jeff Stilson, and produced by Chris Rock for HBO Films. Now, Chris Rock is someone I watch with the remote in one hand, just in case I have to mute it right away or switch channels. He's funny in a mealy sort of way. But this time Chris Rock is a gentleman, a court jester with a research degree and an agenda, letting his subjects laugh at themselves and each other without rancor.

Without pandering he chats up everyday people asking their opinions, listening intently and relying on the irony in their own words. He cracks a few cultural jokes, but seems saddened by the spectacle of young African American women intent on beating the odds by by achieving the admired "good hair" through any means possible. The hair industry in black culture dominates the beauty scene even more than clothes. In conversations in barber shops and salons Chris eeks out the truth.

And what about my own hair you may ask. .When I was a youngster I had camel-length eyelashes and thick curly hair my mother's friends all loved. But my unpartable springy hair drew ire and spit from my smooth tressed friends. Steve could run his stumpy fingers through his hair, jack his head sharply to the right, and every strand would flutter perfectly into a rakish pompadour. Touching my hair merely pushed it into tufts, resistant to breezes and even gravity, there it would stall unflatteringly until pushed back into place. So I know something about wanting good hair.

"Good Hair" tells the story of the black hair industry, it's beneficiaries and victims. Starting in Atlanta, where, Chris suggests "all major black decisions are made, " he attends the Bronner Bros. Hair Show, where thousands of black hair products and all manner of hair dressers compete for the multibillion dollar black hair market. Chris points out that black hair products are used 100% by blacks, yet 80% of the black hair care companies are owned by white and Asian interests, go figure.

Unsurprisingly, money is at the core. First Chris concentrates on the hair relaxer industry. Pointing out that Oprah, Rianna, Whitney - some of our favorite stars undergo this straightening process to some degree, men too, how about Prince, and on some girls as young as 3. Michelle O, curiously, is not mentioned, perhaps somehow the cultural implications are too great for the scope of this movie. The relaxing process is smelly, dangerous and corrosive, the white cream can burn through a tin can in just hours; but the results are silken locks, that is until the roots show - then its cough up a few more Franklins. Then there's weaves. Chris jaunts off to India where hair is collected from women who donate their hair to the gods in colorful religious rites, estimated at as many as 10 million shaved heads a year. The hair is gathered and processed for sale to US markets, mostly in LA. A good weave can cost up to $4,000, and needs to be replaced three times a year. For too many black women and their families, the cost of good hair effects their relationships and their bottom line.

The movie running time is only 95 minutes, but it seems longer when Chris defers the focus to the Hair Show beautician finalists, contestants in a bizarre hair-cutting stage show. There are several short interviews with the likes of Maya Angelou, Ice-T and Nia Long. But it's hats off to Al Sharpton, smiling and witty he reminisces about hair care tips he got from James Brown. Al asserts with resignation that black women today awaken each morning and comb their exploitation from root to tip.

A comedy documentary with a courteous tone, Good Hair is fun and entertaining while shedding light on another odd, somewhat sad chapter of Americana. I say see it, but let Netflix pick up the tab.

© 2009 - Jonathan W. Wind - Air Date: 10/28/09
Movie Magazine International