Chris Rock, a man with two daughters, asks about good hair, as defined by Black Americans, mostly Black women. He visits Bronner Brothers' annual hair convention in Atlanta. He tells us about sodium hydroxide, a toxin used to relax hair. He looks at weaves, and he travels to India where tonsure ceremonies produce much of the hair sold in America. A weave is expensive: he asks who makes the money. We visit salons and barbershops, central to the Black community. Rock asks men if they can touch their mates' hair - no, it's decoration. Various talking heads (many of them women with good hair) comment. It's about self image. Maya Angelou and Tracie Thoms provide perspective. Written by
I was expecting a crass and superficial documentary. I didn't get that. But I also didn't get a documentary that had much substance.
Inspired by a question his daughter posed to him one day, one of the themes of Rock's film is to highlight the absurdities and contradictions associated with the multi-billion dollar beauty industry that concerns itself with making African American women's hairs look more 'natural' and 'relaxed.' This component of the film was conveyed by the excesses portrayed in Rock's salon interviews and the hair-dresser competition (that had less to do with hair and more to do with everything else). Rock approaches the subject matter seemingly with a degree of 'innocence' not unlike the disposition of his daughter's inquiry. He interjects comical observations into his interviews to highlight the ways in which a visible and highly racialized 'beauty norm' circulates the American cultural landscape to cultivate the desire for African American women to look 'a certain way.' But while this component of the documentary is interesting (and often entertaining), it is severely inadequate and fails to provide his daughter with a thoughtful and satisfactory answer to her question.
First, the "9 billion dollar hair trade industry" is far more exploitative than as portrayed in the film. In fact, the film actually makes invisible a whole network of people involved in the 'hair trade', in particular those involved in processing the hairs to be used as weaves and wigs. The is an illicit component of the 'hair trade' steep in child labour and sweatshop labour that flies in the face of Al Sharpton's "do whatever you feel like as long as you are not hurting anyone..." liberal rhetoric. That it came out of the mouth of a self-proclaimed 'civil rights activist' is all the more ironic.
Second, the documentary fails to ask why 'long relaxed hair' is a beauty norm even in African American culture (as well as other African 'diaspora' communities). Why do so many African American women feel the need to 'de-naturalize' their hair at such extravagant financial expense and associated health risks? This omission in the film has been subject to a significant number of criticisms, and rightly so, considering it is at the heart of the question posed by Rock's daughter (that we are told, was the inspiration for the film). It is not as if Rock had to do the research from the ground up since there is already a lengthy and extensive list of materials addressing this topic in film and in print--contrary to a number of reviewers who have suggested that this topic has not been discussed before.
What is particularly surprising is how ignorant most of the reviewers here seem to be about this topic (compared to most of the 'professional' film critics I read, who seem to be more educated about it). I can understand if they are actually from countries that do not have a sizable population of African descent. But if you are an American (and especially if you are an African-American) and you never gave a thought about this topic until you saw this film? You'd rank 9 on the scale of ignorance, right behind Miss Teen South Carolina and her "some people in our nation don't have maps" spectacle.
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