November 11, 2009

As a standup comic in the ‘90s, Chris Rock filled the auditorium; he bellowed and screeched, thundering from one side of the stage to the other. He was in your face and so was his material. In Bigger and Blacker, he blamed Hillary Clinton for the Lewinsky scandal (Monica only subbed when Hillary had grown lazy) and claimed that women are the biggest liars because of how they present themselves (heels, makeup and weaves). His fearlessness allowed him to make ridiculous statements—no matter how off-color.

In Good Hair, Rock plays the newer incarnation of himself that’s accompanied his forays into the mainstream: he is comparatively sedate and polite and limits himself to the casual aside. The man who shows up in Good Hair is somewhere in between the Chris Rock who made cracker jokes and the Chris Rock who hosted the Oscars.

Good Hair begins innocently enough, with a home video of Rock with his daughters, Lola and Zahra. The younger of the two, Zahra, asks a question fraught with historical significance that propels what is to come: “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

Children are good indicators of our own values, which in the case of Black hair are, as actress Nia Long says, “the lighter—the brighter, the better.” In pursuit of a bouncy, full-length coif, Black women have mostly come to rely on chemical relaxers—the creamy crack—and weaves. The main ingredient of hair relaxer is sodium hydroxide, which, as Rock has a scientist demonstrate, can eat through aluminum cans, the alveoli of your lungs and, naturally, your hair. When relaxing your hair, the indicator of when to wash it out is when the burning becomes unbearable.

Good Hair gives us a great deal of useful information. Just as we receive the genealogy of the relaxer, we also learn where the 100 percent human hair comes from for the thousand-dollar weaves. Rock travels to India to visit the Venkateswara Temple, where Hindu disciples offer up their hair as an act of religious devotion.

Indian women wash, comb and package the hair, which is then sold to middlemen (most of whom are Korean or Chinese immigrants) who in turn sell it to eager Black women. Watching the flow of global capital is dizzying, but more deeply impressive is how many players and institutions like temples and small businessmen are involved in this chain of exploitation.

Rock’s jaunty demeanor seems incongruous when thought of in this light. While it seems as though his mouth is itching to make retorts and he is restraining himself from making incredulous bug-eyes, he is mostly content to allow the celebrities do the opining. We get plenty of amusing anecdotes: creamy crack seared the side of Pepa’s head, resulting in the asymmetrical look seen in the Push It video. Maya Angelou first relaxed her hair when she was in her 70s. Vivica A. Fox prefers the locks of Malaysian women.

Rock treats the topics with a chuckle, but it leaves us with a feeling that we’re getting a blow-dried, glossy version of the actual stories. Instead of just asking Black models and actresses (most of whom wear weaves) for their thoughts on hair, what about Black public intellectuals like Angela Davis and Toni Morrison?

While treating such a complicated topic with levity can be refreshing, it is also deceiving. For as funny as it is to discuss the dos and don’ts of weave sex (“Stay on top,” advises Nia Long), there is a deeper psychology underneath those tresses of wavy hair.

The most insight comes from the most political person in the documentary, the Rev. Al Sharpton. His addiction to conking began when James Brown wanted to take him to the White House to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday as a national holiday. He comments on how Black people wear their oppression on their heads. But if he acknowledges the oppression, then why continue to do it? Undoubtedly there is no simple answer, but the topic begs for more exploration.

The most grounded moment of the documentary is when Rock holds a discussion with a group of soon-to-be high school graduates about their job prospects. The straight-haired girls readily tell their curly-haired friend that they wouldn’t hire her for a job, that they, too, see her unruly hair as reflective of an unruly personality. Apparently, an afro is appropriate if you’re bagging groceries at the local food co-op, but it’s certainly not on K street.

The girls are in full agreement with that much-maligned Glamour editor, Ashley Baker, who told a group of female lawyers that “shocking” and “political” hairstyles like afros and dreadlocks were fashion no-nos. Baker received a lot of liberal outrage for her slide presentation, but she was only informing Black women of what they already knew. As comedian Paul Mooney famously quips, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If you’re hair is nappy, they’re not happy.”

Rock is, and rightly so, invested in the physical and fiscal health of Black people. At the Bronner Bros. Hair Show in Atlanta, he reveals that only a paltry number of booths are actually Black-owned. Dudley’s Hair and Cosmetics, the factory that produces the toxic vats of relaxant, is one of a handful of Black-owned brands. The founder, Joe Dudley, says it’s significant his product is made “by our own, for our own.” And yet, after witnessing what relaxant does to a piece of chicken breast, we have to wonder, what exactly are you selling to your people?

Noticeably absent from the documentary is the matriarch of the family, Malaak Compton-Rock. After all, who is the most enduring presence in a young daughter’s life? A quick scan of images and videos of Malaak Compton-Rock reveals a self-assured woman who is passionate about her nonprofit work and sports a giant head of weave. The reason for little Zahra’s lament becomes clear: she just wants hair like Mom’s.

For someone who launched his career on button pushing, the documentary leaves too many of these questions unexamined. Chris Rock’s exploration feels vaguely unsatisfying, mostly because, unlike the old Chris Rock, he never really goes there.


Alex Jung is a writer living and loving in New York City. You can disagree with him at e.alexander.jung@gmail.com.


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