Hair lippin'

Chris Rock rocks a new doc on black tresses that’ll raise your dander

Oct 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Maybe he was inspired by the brief appearance of one of his routines in Bowling For Columbine, but Chris Rock not only adopts Michael Moore's celebrity approach to pop documentary filmmaking, he improves upon it. Instead of tackling big subjects in small ways, he investigates a seemingly superficial topic and digs deep, unearthing a treasure of fascinating and, at times, profound truths.

When Rock's 4-year-old daughter Lola asks: "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" the comedian is both floored and intrigued. What is it about the business and culture of black hair that inspires so many women (and some men) to endure torturous treatments in order to look more "European" (i.e. white)? Good Hair is Rock's informative, scattered and always-entertaining attempt to answer that question. Traveling the globe and combing through the billion-dollar black hair industry, the comedian examines the complex and potentially volatile topic in his typically glib fashion. 

From the Bronner Brothers' over-the-top hair product convention and competition in Atlanta, to a tour of a black-owned company where "relaxer" is made to a temple in India where highly desired extensions are harvested, Rock provides a multi-layered view of the economics, culture and social pressures that drive black women to straighten, weave and extend their hair. It's a sobering mix of social commentary and comedy that connects Rock with such celebrities as Maya Angelou, Nia Long, Eve, Tracie Thoms, Salli Richardson, and Salt-n-Pepa. But some of his best interviews occur in barbershops and hair salons in Harlem, where everyday women spend extraordinary sums (financing and layaways are available) on their locks, and men lament that they are not only asked to invest but also forbidden to touch their woman's hair (even during sex).

Quick-witted, curious and disarming, Rock is able to connect with subjects at every level, easily getting them to answer insightful and even uncomfortable questions. If only he were as quick on the follow-ups as he is on the one-liners. Though there are plenty of meaty facts and thought-provoking moments in Good Hair, it rarely scores the "a-ha" revelations to rival the best examples of the doc genre. Oddly enough, Al Sharpton asks the most important and provocative question in the film: Why is an industry, which so expressly serves the black community, controlled almost exclusively by white corporations? (Unfortunately, Rock lets the question hang rather than delving any deeper.) Similar discussions — with high school girls who avoid "nappy" dreads, and a rep from Morehouse College who subtly advises grads to not let their hair look too black during job interviews — miss the opportunity to examine the profound impact of racial identity in the workplace. 

Instead, the doc's narrative backbone is serviced by the Bronner Brothers' outrageous hair competition, where gimmicks and stagecraft (trapezes, fish tanks, marching bands) count for more than style or skill, allowing Rock to land some killer comedy. The colorful hair combatants (including a beloved gay white stylist) provide some reality-TV tension while acting as a metaphor for the way beauty is packaged and sold to the masses, devoid of actual meaning or real importance. But their impression is too fleeting to warrant the amount of screen time they're given.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].