By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009
"Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"
That's the question that propels comedian Chris Rock through "Good Hair," a hilarious documentary that, like all great comedies, is shot through with equal parts humor and heartbreak.
The concept of "good hair" -- which, simply put, has come to mean "the straighter the better" in the African American community -- turns out to be as tangled as the most unruly tresses themselves. It's tied up as much with politics, economics and freighted history as with mere vanity and personal choice.
As Rock explains in his narration, the ambitious project did begin with that inevitable query from one of his daughters, then 5 years old. Not having an answer at the ready, he embarked on a madcap tour through African American hair culture, visiting beauty salons and barbershops, the spectacular Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta and finally India, where the most coveted source material for hair extensions is grown. Along the way he interviewed celebrities -- Nia Long, Salt-n-Pepa and Al Sharpton are among the most amusing and insightful -- to confront that perennially vexing question: What is it about black people's hair that freaks white people out so much?
Actually, Rock doesn't put it exactly that way. But as one of Rock's interviewees says, "If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If you're nappy, they're not happy."
Although "Good Hair" focuses on the upshot of white expectations and anxieties rather than those issues themselves, the film makes their implications painfully clear: Visiting a laboratory, Rock demonstrates the corrosive properties of relaxing formulas (known as "creamy crack" among the cognoscenti) and interviews scads of women who ruefully recall their worst flatiron and chemical burns (that's how Pepa hit on her signature asymmetrical style back in the day).
No doubt wigs, extensions and weaves have taken some of the physical suffering out of the hair issue. But the existential pain still lingers in the blond, blue-eyed standard of beauty that many girls internalize with varying degrees of psychic trauma, which holds particularly loaded implications for African American women. One of the most anguishing scenes in "Good Hair" features a 6-year-old with her head slathered in punishing chemicals. If such observations make "Good Hair" sound like a bummer, it's anything but. Thanks to Rock's running monologue, combining scathing humor with trenchant observations, the film manages to be side-splitting even while making its most poignant points. "Good Hair," directed by longtime Rock collaborator Jeff Stilson, is such a rollicking, thoroughly entertaining ride that it's easy to take for granted just how easy Rock makes it look. But only a performer with his unique combination of sharp insight and quicksilver wit could limn the spectacle, humor and bitter irony of the supercharged and largely hidden world "Good Hair" reveals.
Like so many recent documentaries, "Good Hair" uses the structural conceit of following a competition, a surefire formula for narrative tension that, in the Atlanta hair extravaganza depicted here, seems to have sprung fully formed from Central Casting (one of the competitors is a young white man known as the "Rosa Parks of good hair"). But the best scene by far in the movie is a frank, explosively funny encounter between Rock and some men in a neighborhood barbershop, a conversation about sex, money and hair that grows all the more illuminating as it becomes steadily more graphic.
If the audience misses anything in "Good Hair," it might be more testimony from African American women who have let their hair grow naturally, for whatever reason -- aesthetic, philosophical or practical. "To keep my hair the same texture as it grows out of my head is looked at as revolutionary," says the actress Tracie Thoms. "Why is that?" The answer proves elusive, but "Good Hair" at least raises the question, with equal doses of affection, provocation and wisdom.
Good Hair (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some profanity including sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity.