Articles: Good Hair: Scared Straight




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Janet Singleton

A great comedian will look at anything and reflexively ask: what’s funny about this?  So a talent like Chris Rock could dig up humor in a cemetery. In his new documentary, Good Hair, he blithely makes us laugh at a topic that runs deep with tragedy.

The very discussion of what black women do to make African hair match Eurocentric images, and placate racism, remains one of the few taboo subjects in America. In the film, which he wrote and produced with author/screenwriter Nelson George, Rock is the pied-piper narrator who asks a panoply of folks, from celebs to everyday beauty shop clients, intimate questions about African- American hair.

Interviews with high-profilers like Sarah Jones, Maya Angelou, Nia Long, Ice-T, Tracie Thoms, and Al Sharpton are interspersed with comments from workers and customers in black salons and barbershops.  Everyone is forthcoming and even tress merchants who express attitudes about race and hair that could be believably mouthed by characters on The Flintstones are disarming in their honesty.

It is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of black American women chemically straighten their hair.  So Good Hair tours a land ruled by accommodation. It is a landscape of chemical straighteners, christened “relaxers” during someone’s long-ago burst of marketing genius, and prosthetic swatches of hair inserted through weaving procedures.

Still, unadulterated black hair has its champions. Tracie Thoms (Cold Case, Rent) talks  about the resolve it takes to be a holdout and wear her attractive locks naturally.  Comedienne and playwright Sarah Jones, apparently sporting her own organic curls, laughingly reminisces about the overnight phantom growth of weave-aided hair, comparing it to those magical dolls whose ponytails grow when pulled.

While occasionally self-effacing, the humor is not self-denigrating. The movie keeps deftly afloat on good-natured ribbing and the kind of devices reminiscent of Michael Moore’s nonfiction flicks. Rock uses outrageous gags like trying to sell kinky hair to a weave store—to expose outrageous realities. Theatrical excesses at a black hair convention, the annual Bronner Brothers International Hair Show held each year in Atlanta, don’t keep competitors, who strut expertise by cutting hair upside down and underwater, from conveying vulnerability and longing.

A dramatic scientific demonstration gives the movie some Bronner Brothers flamboyance of its own. Rock consults a chemist who demonstrates that relaxer ingredients have the power to dissolve an aluminum can.

Yet the best adventure is the trip to India, the source of most of the hair purchased by black women via weaves, extensions and wigs. Indian women who provide their abundant strands are not paid for a substance that is worth perhaps millions annually.  Many locks comes from head shaving performed at a religious ceremony referred to as tonsure. Apparently, a string of middle men from Asia to L.A. are slurping up the profits.

This film can make you think, even if you tended to think a lot, anyway.  Conversely, it is at times thoughtless and misogynistic, treats popular culture as a universal religion, and does not acknowledge the millions of black women who refuse to bow down to the cult of superficiality of which so many of those interviewed are members.

One light- complexioned starlet, who speaks of her happily-corrected-but-once-perversely-wayward hair, is racially mixed.  She has a white mother, she says.  But didn’t you already have ‘good hair'?  Every kid in my grade school in Chicago would have voted for a long wavy biracial mane as winner in the good hair election.  Those miniature Chicagoans would have voted at least two or three times, in fact.  But I realized that these days waves may be looked upon like car dents, or worse— the kissing cousins of kinks!  Even good is not good enough.  If Hitler had been a hairdresser I cannot imagine even he would have been as exacting as some of those tress connoisseurs who populate Good Hair.

Yet, currently even short hair on white women reaps little favor in popular media. Extension salons are springing up in swanky white suburbs to cater to some sort of Lady Godiva complex requiring goo gobs of hair to achieve a feeling of aesthetic and sexual security.  In recent decades, corporate merchandising and cultural narcissism have merged to promote a feminine ideal that just does not exist in nature. The faked-out tresses of youth-oriented flicks and ad campaigns play like “Good Hair Turbo.”

An easy-going message that bounces around in the film is that women should be happy with their hair, regardless of how they choose to wear it.  A celebratory feels shines through. That makes sense because, after all, in this area and others, black creativity and resourcefulness have transformed shame to pride.

It seems someone, however, forgot to mention that this is a subject, often paired with skin tone issues, that has caused black girls and women pain so intense that were the agony physical it would qualify for medical morphine.

And I found fictitious the suggestion in Good Hair that no male pressure motivates women to slap caustic chemicals on their scalps and attach other people’s hair to their heads. Were that true, bill boards, movies, TV, girly magazines, and endless venues dominated by male power and tastes would feature lots of women with short, curly, or nappy dos.

To be fair, Rock says he was inspired by concern about the self-images of his two young daughters.  And the interview with Al Sharpton directly connects the personal to the political.  We wear our oppression on our heads and set it on our bed stands at night, the reverend says.

I just fear that we also bear the hungry beast in our hearts.

I wish comedienne Wanda Sykes, who has co-starred in many of Rick’s comedic films and wears an Afro, would make a movie about our hair.  Chris Rock has made a likable and mostly humane film, but there is still so much to say.

This piece originally was published on  Janet Singleton is a freelance writer.


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