Generous ‘Hair’ cut above strident documentaries
Unlike most documentaries with a message, “Good Hair” — Chris Rock’s amusing examination of African-American hair culture — invites moviegoers to a conversation, not a lecture.
“Food, Inc.,” for example, tells us to demand locally grown produce. “Sicko” urges us to support federal health care reform. “An Inconvenient Truth” wants us to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs.
“Good Hair,” in comparison, warns against the perils of chemical relaxer (“the creamy crack,” the film calls it); chides working women for spending thousands of dollars on weaves; and charges that “hands off the hair” mandates have decreased intimacy between black men and black women.
And then the film lets its target audience off the hook by concluding that, hey, it’s not what’s on the head but what’s under it that counts; so if you want to spend the rent money on a knitted net of human hair culled from a temple floor after a Hindu shaving ritual in India, spend away, ladies, spend away!
One expects less accommodation from Rock, the film’s typically truth-telling host/narrator and executive producer; one hopes for a stronger endorsement of the “natural” look from a film that operates, in part, as an exposé of the mostly white - owned multibillion-dollar black hair-care industry. After all, the movie was motivated, Rock tells us, by the plaintive question of his own young daughter: “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”
On the other hand, the film’s generosity may be its secret weapon in the battle to raise the consciousness of those who think straight European hair is more attractive than “nappy” African hair. Michael Moore movies pretty much preach to the converted; “Good Hair” — a film about a topic of universal interest, even obsession, among women — should reach a large mainstream audience that is seeking comedy more than enlightenment. What viewer won’t wince when he or she sees that sodium hydroxide, the active ingredient in hair relaxer (“the closest thing we have to a nap antidote,” Rock says), can dissolve an aluminum can in a few hours?
Poorly photographed on digital video that looks no better than what you’d see on a local TV news broadcast, “Good Hair” intercuts a familiar travelogue format with an even more familiar “competition” scenario, as Rock and director Jeff Stilson visit salons, barbershops, a weave factory in India and other hairy locales while occasionally checking back with the combatants preparing for a glitzy styling contest at a national black hair convention in Atlanta (the place “where all major black decisions are made,” Rock says).
Rock interviews such celebrities as Nia Long, Raven-Symoné, Ice-T, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Maya Angelou, who discuss their hair experiences and preferences. Tellingly, almost all the actresses — who make a career out of being attractive — have straightened hair. Rock catches the stars in some embarrassing admissions, but he’s no Borat; “Good Hair” lets everybody have a good time, onscreen and off.
Chris Rock (right) tries to raise consciousness without stooping to preachiness.