Critics say Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair, which opens today, is a fascinating, sometimes funny look at how black women style — and feel about — their hair. But, some say it doesn't delve deep enough into controversial issues.
Chris Rock, who co-wrote, produced, and stars in the film, was inspired to make it when his young daughter asked why she doesn't have "good hair." He decided to explore others' ideas of what constitutes "good hair" by visiting beauty salons, analyzing the chemicals found in relaxers, and interviewing celebrities from Eve to Al Sharpton to Maya Angelou about their hair.
Almost every critic praises Good Hair, but for the most part, their reviews stick to a summary of the film and analysis of Rock as host/narrator. Several say they found themselves surprised by the information presented - possibly because, judging from photos found online, none of them reviewers actually have black hair. While this latter fact doesn't disqualify them from critiquing the quality of the film, the reviews do come from an outsider's perspective, like The New York Times' take, which notes, "One of the happy consequences of Good Hair should be a radical increase in white-woman empathy for their black sisters."
Some critics do say the film doesn't adequately explore the gender politics of how black men feel about black women's hair, which Dodai worried about after watching a preview clip of men discussing their wives' and girlfriends' hair in a barber shop. The most in-depth analysis comes from Roger Ebert, who claims in his Chicago Sun-Times review that the kind of relaxer shown eating through a Coke can isn't commonly used. (Ebert, who is married to an African-American woman, also complains about Chris Rock seeming to advocate for "natural hair", pointing out that every woman, regardless of color, uses some type of product or treatment on her tresses.)
Rock, who co-wrote Good Hairand serves as its guiding host, is hilariously aware of the cultural insecurities that have driven many African-Americans to spend a fortune on straightening their hair. Yet by structuring the film around the Bronner Bros. Hair Show, a battle-of-the-salon-stars so over-the-top it's like Iron Chefmeets Paris Is Burning, Rock gives Good Hair a rousing message: Where African-Americans in the '60s adopted a ''natural'' look, they now feel free to coif their heads any way they want. That's cultural power.
Is it possible to talk about the fascinating and complex universe of black hair without dealing with race and identity? That's the question posed by Good Hair, director Jeff Stilson and co-writer/producer/narrator/star Chris Rock's charming new comic exploration of African-American hair. The film is filled with sadly telling moments, like a black beauty student telling Rock that she'd have a hard time taking a job applicant seriously if he had an afro, yet its tone is one of amusement rather than indignation. Rock is an entertainer, not a polemicist, and Good Hair will never be mistaken for a college course in African American Hair And Racial Identity, though it does stress the pain women will endure and the exorbitant prices they'll pay to keep up with follicular trends. To the film's subjects, paying thousands for a complicated, high-maintenance weave is less a luxury than a necessity, even for those low on the socio-economic scale.
In fact, one of the happy consequences of Good Hair should be a radical increase in white-woman empathy for their black sisters. Whether in thrall to "creamy crack," a scary, aluminum-dissolving chemical otherwise known as relaxer (what it's really relaxing, observes Mr. Rock astutely, is white people), or the staggeringly expensive and time-consuming weave (often available on layaway plan), the women in the film bare heads and hearts with humor and without complaint...
Competently directed by Jeff Stilson, Good Hair employs humor as a medium for insightful and often uncomfortable observations on race and conformity. The film's only misstep is its fixation on the competitors in a flamboyant Atlanta hair show. Far more entertaining are the barbershop conversations in which ordinary men jovially gripe about their honeys' hairdos; they're a brotherhood joined in financial commitment and - thanks to hands-off-the-head decrees at home - emotional frustration.
One thing Rock, as a guy, might not understand is that not all curly-wavy-kinky hair, regardless of the race of the person it belongs to, is the same. And keeping any hair "natural" can take a bit of work: Rock interviews actress Tracie Thoms (who appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof), who has the most beautiful head of tiny, perfectly formed corkscrew curls I've ever seen. Thank goodness she doesn't straighten it — but I suspect she takes great care keeping it conditioned, too.Regardless, Rock isn't out to chide people for the choices they make. And he allows himself to be the butt of a joke, too. When Maya Angelou, who is in her early 80s, tells him she didn't have her hair relaxed until she was about 70, he murmurs something about how she went "her whole life" without doing so. She counters mischievously, "Not my whole life, I'm still alive!" Rock laughs, a lot, during Good Hair, which suggests he's having a great time. It also suggests that while he won't be dictatorial with his own daughters, he wants them to be happy with the hair they've got — at least to the point of recognizing that good hair lies in the eye of the beholder.
It's telling that, with the exception of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who proudly flaunts his perm, Rock's subjects acknowledge that hair vanity is an almost exclusively female attribute. But to the comedian's credit, he doesn't let the guys off the hook, either, and an uproarious series of interviews with black male patrons at a barbershop brings the docu's battle-of-the-sexes subtext to the fore. There's something of a barbershop quality to Good Hair, in the way Rock creates a lively public forum for people to riff with delightful frankness on subjects that seem more taboo than they should be... [Rock] also spends a lot of time at the Bronner Bros. Intl. Hair Show, an annual hair-care convention in Atlanta. These segments, which bookend the pic, are a bit overextended, but an outrageous contest, pitting four leading stylists of black hair against each other, must be seen to be believed.
Not surprisingly, it is a story with money at its center — the multibillion-dollar business of black hair from the processes used to straighten it, to the money spent to weave straight hair over it, to the cultural stigma attached to it.Though Rock has a distinct point of view — natural is better — instead of outrage, he relies on irony and his own bemusement to walk us through a world he clearly finds troubling. Indeed, what carries this film is Rock, as both star and part of the writing team he has surrounded himself with old friends from The Chris Rock Show: writer-director Jeff Stilson and writers Chuck Sklar and Lance Crouther. The result is a documentary that weaves as much comedy as fact into the narrative, making the experience a satisfying entertainment even for the lucky few who have no hair cares at all.
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.
Rock is certainly a sympathetic and curious observer, though including Ice-T's remark that "a real pimp can tell what a woman looks like baldheaded" betrays some of the gender politics that remain vigorously unexamined in this breezy, superficial doc.
Good Hair is a slipshod doc about a fascinating subject: the loaded history and current complications of African-American hairstyling. The film is especially powerful in how it offhandedly shows certain races fomenting and exploiting the desires of others-these range from the obvious (the Caucasian-manufactured longing among black women to look more white) to the illuminating (the majority of black hair products are processed and sold by Koreans). Yet our tour guide through this sociopolitical miasma, Chris Rock, merely sees it as an opportunity to crack wise.
Chris Rock the host and narrator, is a likable man, quick, truly curious, with the gift of encouraging people to speak openly about a subject they usually keep private. He conveys a lot of information, but also some unfortunate opinions and misleading facts. That doesn't mean the movie isn't warm, funny and entertaining... What about the hazards of straightening? Rock shows a hair-raising demonstration of an aluminum Coke can literally being eaten up in a bath of sodium hydroxide. It may help to recall that another name for sodium hydroxide is "lye." God forbid a woman should put that on her head! What Rock doesn't mention is that few women do. If he had peeked in Wikipedia, he would have learned: "Because of the high incidence and intensity of chemical burns, chemical relaxer manufacturers have now switched to other alkaline chemicals." Modern relaxers can also burn if left on too long, but they won't eat up your Coke cans... The use of the word "natural hair" is, in any event, misleading. Take a stroll down the hair products aisle of a drugstore or look at the stock price of Supercuts. Few people of any race wear completely natural hair. If they did, we would be a nation of Unibombers.