“Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair,” a question asked by Chris Rock’s daughter, prefaces first-time feature writer/director Jeff Stilson’s documentary, Good Hair.
The film begins with classic, black-and-white images of conventional beauty from films, pageants, showing straightened hair, weaves, extensions, and so on. Rock interviews a number of celebrities, everyday people, hairstylists, notable figures (including Maya Angelou who possesses a fantastic sense of humor), hair industry experts, and a “chemical genius.” His journey even takes him to India, where temples collecting hair sacrificed to the gods as a rejection of vanity are at the heart of the $9 billion hair products industry.
Mr. Stilson, a veteran writer of “Da Ali G Show,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Chris Rock Show” has co-written (with Mr. Rock and his long-time pal, abstract humorist Lance Crouther), shot and assembled a story that takes us from the consumer to the manufacturers, the promoters and even the raw materials of this pervasive business. We hear from customers ranging the economic spectrum, from schoolteachers and day care providers who spend $1000 on weaves to actresses like Nia Long, Eve, and Melyssa Ford who estimates her hair expenses around $18,000 per year. Rapper Sandra “Pepa” Denton of the veteran act Salt-n-Pepa estimates that she’s spent over $150,000 on hair products over the course of her career. Al Sharpton, Ice-T and T-Pain are among the men who offer their perspectives on the attraction to women using the product, or repulsion at the expense involved. Rev. Sharpton is among the funniest subjects. Balking at the costs, he comically suggests declaring his spouse’s weave as a dependent on his 1040. It might help him combat some of the $1.5 million in unpaid income tax he reportedly owes the IRS.
Demystifying the secrets of women’s enigmatic hair rituals, Mr. Rock discovers the chief ingredient in chemical relaxer, sodium hydroxide (lye), is so corrosive that it can dissolve a soda can in just four hours. And people put this on their head? But Mr. Rock and Mr. Stilson don’t beat you up with a tiresome polemic a-la Michael Moore. Never does he put himself at the center of the film, condescend to the audience, or insult his interview subjects regardless of their views—or harass Revlon with a megaphone. There are only two moments where Mr. Rock truly approaches discomfort. One is during a tour of a manufacturing plant where a supervisor explains the process behind the product. Every other interview shows him genuinely upbeat; here Mr. Rock’s arms are folded, lips pursed and eyes beady—but just barely. However, he reserves his antiestablishment rants for his stand-up comedy.
The film’s highlight is the Bronner Bros. hairstyling contest in Atlanta—full of glitz and panache—the contestants of which include Dallas’ own Freddie J., the whiter-than-white Jason Griggers, and the ludicrously flamboyant Derek J. Griggers and Derek J. are equally-skilled, but it’s interesting to note that the predominantly black contingent of stylists at this industry event regularly bet on Griggers each year.
Despite the promotional aspect of this segment, possibly a compromise with the film’s backers to have a marketable draw beyond straight documentary, Mr. Rock ties all of the pieces back together in the end. After speaking to the future generation, a group of high school students, one of whom has natural hair, Mr. Rock recaps the customers, the scientists, the industry professionals and leaves us with both pros and cons to think about. It’s our bodies, our risk, our choice. But, as comedians traditionally have provided the most poignant social commentary throughout the ages, all the way back to William Shakespeare, Chris Rock has left us with a reasonably informed choice.
Good Hair • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 96 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language including sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity. • Distributed by Roadside Attractions