Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: "Good Hair"

"Good Hair" is a funny and breezy movie with a deep undertow.

Host Chris Rock examines black women's obsession with hair, which has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. He interviews a lot of famous African-American actresses who admit they use expensive weaves, and even follows this river of hair back to its wellspring in India.

The surface of the documentary, directed by Jeff Stilson and co-written by him, Rock and a few others, is all fun 'n' games. Rock interviews famous people about their hair, from actress Nia Long to the Rev. Al Sharpton, but he also goes into numerous salons in black neighborhoods to talk to everyday women who are putting painful, dangerous chemicals into their hair to straighten it, or shelling out $1,000 (and up) for weaves of other people's hair.

Things really get rolling when Rock then goes into some barbershops to talk to black men about the love triangle between them, their romantic partners and their ladies' hair.

The mens' sheepish, embarrassed looks soon give way to same really hilarious commentary, which basically boils down to "keep your hands off the hair."

But as fun as these scenes are, Rock deftly probes into the underbelly of an industry that's siphoning off a king's ransom from black communities, and putting it mostly into the hands of corporations controlled by whites and Asians.

For a brief time in the 1970s, natural kinky black hair was worn with pride. But African-American women (some men, too) were sold an image that straight, flowing hair -- basically, white hair -- was what they needed to look good, and to get ahead in society.

"The lighter, the brighter, the better," Long says.

One of the most heart-breaking scenes in the movie comes when Rock is interviewing a group of girls about to graduate from high school. They're young, gifted and black, and the potential practically glows off them. Then the girls with straightened hair one by one tell their Afroed friend that if they were interviewing her for a job, they wouldn't hire her because of her nappy head.

Weaves are the newest thing to push the limits, both stylistically and financially. Long cascades of real human hair are braided into a woman's existing hair -- sometimes even glued in. The effect is pretty convincing, but as TV actress Raven-Symoné demonstrates when she pulls on either end of her flowing locks, not quite foolproof.

The film goes into investigative mode when Rock travels to India to find out where all this hair is coming from. It turns out that much of it comes from a religious ceremony called tonsure, in which most Indian women have their heads shaved at least a couple of times during their lives.

We get see the dingy shops where the hair is cleaned, processed and delivered to upscale Beverly Hills boutiques, where it's woven onto the heads of the rich and famous.

Rock got the idea for the movie when one of his two little girls came up to him and asked, "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?"

That's the sort of question that could provoke a loving father to travel the globe in search of a sufficient answer. Lucky for us Chris Rock did, and why "Good Hair" is so good, and shows us how meaningful something as seemingly trivial as hair can be.

3.5 stars

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