Good Hair (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Good Hair (2009)

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ANDREW LIKEChris Rock turns out to be a pretty damn good documentary filmmaker.  Using a hired gun director and some perceptive ideas, he takes a topic that could have been used as a platform for a lot of eye-rolling and mockery, but turns it into an engaging and thoughtful piece on a lot of topics.  In the span of an hour and a half he touches on commodity fetishism, modern gender and race relations, the new global currency of hair, and even a bit of religious exploitation.

One trick to a good documentary isn't just by approaching an interesting topic, but how the filmmaker feels about what is being analyzed.  Chris Rock analyzes the hair industry that has sprung up around black hair styles because of his daughters.  They're getting to the age where they're starting to question their own beauty, and one daughter came to him crying because she doesn't have "good hair'.  So off he went, taking along a camera crew and interviewing an incredibly wide range of people from scientists, actresses, barbers, and participants in the Bonner Bros. battle royal of hair styling.

All these interviews are dealt with really perceptively by Rock.  He's genuinely concerned about the world of hair that his daughters are going to be entering, and wants to know the effects that it's had on black women in general.  The results are entertainingly presented, but undercut by a level of sadness.  As he goes around, the recurring theme that he comes up to is that people are willing to give up education, rent, and other basic necessities of life in order to make sure their hair looks good.  Why?  Because black hair isn't desirable, affros of any size aren't acceptable, and white hair is good - so it'll increase your chances of success in life if you have it.  How does this happen?  Good old fashioned unspoken social pressure and a system more than willing to exploit it.

He goes all over the world to find out everything he can about the industry.  We find out that pretty much all of the hair sold in salons around the country comes from India, and that most of it is harvested as part of a religious festival designed to clear out vain thoughts.  That's shipped to America, where hair weaves go for about $1,000 (minimum) in the salons that Rock goes into.  That's a pretty hefty price to pay for decent looking hair.

What was especially surprising was the way hair straightening has "evolved" over the last few decades.  It used to be that hair straightening was a leftover relic of some particularly racist laws in the south.  One measure that lawmakers tried to use to prevent black people from voting was the comb method - if you can't run a comb through someone's hair you can't vote.  This was a dangerous practice back in the day, but now it's been streamlined to be only harmful instead of dangerous.  In addition to other hair care products, sodium hydroxide is used to straighten the strands out, much to the horror of one of the scientists that Rock interviews.

That sequence is a illuminating of Rock's approach.  He's clearly upset by the subtle level of racism present in the conditions that make black women want white hairstyles, but he rarely comments on it directly.  There's little room for any Michael Moore shenanigans in this movie (though they do pop their head in, to varying degrees of success).  When Rock wants to make a point, he just points us in the direction of an experiment and let's us form our own conclusions.  In the case of the scientist, he has him explain the effects of sodium hydroxide and then shows them by soaking an aluminum can in the chemical for an hour.  Everyone sacrifices a lot for their beauty, and we hear again and again that the whole process is akin to putting your head on fire.

All the while Rock just sits back and usually watches.  He asks why, how, and let's them talk about the industry they love and hate.  It's refreshing to see a documentary where the host isn't overpowering the surroundings.  We see that it really does make these women (and some men) feel prettier and better about themselves.  But it still doesn't change the fact that the whole industry is another form of economic repression for a lot of them.  That great subtle commentator, Rev. Al Sharpton, and the wonderful Dr. Maya Angelou have lots of wonderful things to say about this system.

It's not perfect, but any problems with the film are more with the execution than with the subject.  There is one foray into Moore-styled guerrilla point making that doesn't work as Rock goes to various hair stores and tries to sell authentic African American hair.  While his point is well made regarding everyone's aversion to actual black hair, it doesn't fit in with the film at all.  additionally, there's a bit too much tennis match editing going on with a few of the interviews.  The interviewee is speaking, and the camera jumps back and forth to Chris smiling or nodding, as if we needed to know how he felt about that particular sentence.

Those are incredibly minor quibbles though.  As a whole, Good Hair is a remarkably insightful documentary on the hair care industry and it's effects on black culture.  I hope that Chris' daughters come up with a few more questions for him in the future, because I wouldn't mind seeing him take a crack at any other topic.  Until then, massive kudos on this intelligent and thoughtful piece of work.

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Good Hair (2009)

Directed by Jeff Stilson.
Featuring Chris Rock, Ice-T, Maya Angelou and many others.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I’m so glad you picked this movie to review! I really enjoyed it.

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