by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
"Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"
That question, tearfully posed to comedian Chris Rock by his young daughter Lola, was all it took for Rock to travel the country (camera crew in tow) to find out what it actually means to have Good Hair, particularly in the African American community. From local barbershops and the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show to scientific laboratories and an Indian religious temple, Rock and director Jeff Stilson investigate the cultural messaging that has built a $9 billion industry.
Lola believes she doesn’t have good hair because she doesn’t have long straight hair, an ideal many of Rock’s interviewees attribute to European and Asian notions of beauty. Natural afros, at one time synonymous with style and Black Pride, are now something to be relaxed with sodium hydroxide – for men and women. Or, for women who don’t want to risk the side effects of using such a strong chemical and are willing and able to spend a few thousand dollars, a full head of hair (authentic or artificial) can be woven on top of their real hair.
For anyone not familiar with the expansive world of hair relaxers and weaves, Rock is an engaging tour guide. He seems genuinely excited to talk to anyone and everyone about hair – and touch a few heads along the way. During interviews with prominent African Americans, many of whom have very enviable natural, processed, and purchased hair, Rock candidly asks them about their relationship with their coiffure.
Maya Angelou thinks good hair is “if you have it on your head.” Musicians Salt-N-Pepa and actress Raven-Symoné prefer weaves made of thick straight and often imported hair. After burning off half her hair with a relaxer gone wrong, Pepa famously sported an asymmetrical hairdo in the “Push It” music video. After converting to weaves, Pepa estimates that she has since spent over $150,000 on her perfectly symmetrical hair. Raven, a self-proclaimed weave expert, says that relaxed hair “relaxes” people, referencing a racial undertone that Rock openly discusses during many of his interviews.
The documentary investigates the businesses behind the expansive African American hair industry during visits to laboratories that manufacture sodium hydroxide for relaxers, and a trip to an Indian temple where hair is sacrificed in a religious ceremony – and then sold to Americans for weaves. Rock seems genuinely bewildered that hair has become such a valuable commodity.A professional weave can cost $1,000 just for the hair alone (layaway plans are often available) – the time-consuming maintenance comes at an additional cost. During an interview about his own notable hair, Rev. Al Sharpton said, “A weave can cost as much as some children, but you can’t write it off on your taxes.”
African American businesses are not profiting from this very lucrative industry. While most salons and barbershops that cater to African American hair are owned and operated by African Americans, the big companies that manufacture and sell hair care products are not. Rock realizes this disconcerting reality at the annual Bonner Bros. International Hair Show, an event with 120,000 hair professionals that Rock covers with enthusiasm.
Good hair comes with sacrifice, and yet it also bonds people together and creates a sense of community centered on salons and barbershops. Many of the interviewees fondly recall the first time they chemically relaxed their hair, even if it was a physically painful experience. Sharpton describes his scalp being on “fire,” and rapper and actor Ice-T likens the incident to a “torture session.”
As the documentary progresses, Rock learns that hair is a huge issue in many romantic relationships. Chemical relaxers are accepted methods of hair styling for African American men and women, but weaves are solely the territory of women. A pivotal relationship moment is discussing the authenticity of a women’s hair.
Many men interviewed by Rock want to date women with long straight coiffures, but they don’t like the cost of weaves. While visiting a barbershop in Harlem, Rock almost ignites a fight when he asks a few men about dating women with weaves, in particular the restrictions on touching the hair. Some of the men admit that they won’t date women with expensive weaves because they don’t want to take on the financial burden. Ice-T prefers natural hair and even “bald girls” over weaves.
Rock’s style of comedic entertainment makes the film engaging and fun, but he doesn’t trivialize or parody his subject; instead, Rock seems in awe of the cultural phenomenon he documents as he finds that hair has a surprising financial, racial, and interpersonal significance.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.