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Review: 'Good Hair'

Warm, funny and entertaining

Posted: October 8, 2009 1:50 p.m.
Updated: October 9, 2009 6:00 a.m.

Chris Rock, right, is shown in a scene from, "Good Hair." The documentary opens in local theaters today.

 
"Good Hair" is a documentary about black women and their hair. Chris Rock, the host and narrator, is a likable man, quick, truly curious, with the gift of encouraging people to speak openly about a subject they usually keep private. He conveys a lot of information, but also some unfortunate opinions and misleading facts. That doesn't mean the movie isn't warm, funny and entertaining.

The film had its start for Rock when his little daughter asked him, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" He wonders how she got that idea. He discovers that some children even younger than her are already having their hair straightened - and that for children that is a bad idea. He talks to a great many black women about their hair, beginning with the matriarch Maya Angelou and including such celebrities as Nia Long, Eve, Tracie Thoms, Salli Richardson, Salt-n-Pepa and Raven-Symone.

He discovers that for some black women, attaining "good hair" means either straightening or extensions. Straightening involves the application of products containing sodium hydroxide, which a dermatologist and a chemist describe as potentially dangerous to the scalp and even to inhale in quantity.

I imagine a good many black women would tell Chris Rock that having "good hair" simply means having hair that is healthy and strong. For African-American women, that can mean versatile hair that can be worn in a variety of styles: natural, Afros, braids, dreads, African knots, pressed, chemically relaxed or with extensions. They look great. Often they go back and forth among hair styles; that is the way of women, unlike us male clods who settle on a hairstyle in grade school and stick with it like Rod Blagojevich.

Extensions involve braiding long hair to rows of existing hair. Think Beyonce. Where does this hair come from? India, mostly, where some women cut off their hair before marriage or for religious purposes, and can sell it for amounts that mean a lot in a poor nation.

What about the hazards of straightening? Rock shows a hair-raising demonstration of an aluminum Coke can literally being eaten up in a bath of sodium hydroxide. It may help to recall that another name for sodium hydroxide is "lye." God forbid a woman should put that on her head! What Rock doesn't mention is that few women do. If he had peeked at Wikipedia, he would have learned: "Because of the high incidence and intensity of chemical burns, chemical relaxer manufacturers have now switched to other alkaline chemicals." Modern relaxers can also burn if left on too long, but they won't eat up your Coke cans.

The popularity of Afros in the 1960s and '70s asserted that natural hair was beautiful just the way it grew (and was styled, cut and shaped, of course; Angela Davis didn't look that good without effort). Classic Davis-style Afros have grown rare, but another "natural" style, braiding, is seen all the time. Many black men also use braids and dreads as a fashion statement.

The use of the word "natural hair" is, in any event, misleading. Take a stroll down the hair products aisle of a drugstore, or look at the stock price of Supercuts. Few people of any race go without hair grooming. If they did, we would be a nation of Unabombers.
Black hair is a $9 billion industry. Rock plunges in. He visits Dudley Products in Atlanta, a black-owned hair products empire, and is fascinated by the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, an annual convention in Atlanta. Here there's an annual competition to name the hairdresser of the year. Showmanship is everything; one of the four finalists is a young white man who is treasured by his clients.

What Rock does is create a film with much good feeling and instinctive sympathy for our desire to look as good as we can. He asks direct questions, but doesn't cross-examine; he reacts with well-timed one-liners, and he has a hilarious, spontaneous conversation with some black men in a barber shop that gets into areas that are rarely spoken about. The movie has a good feeling to it, but why do I know more about this subject than Chris Rock does? Smile.

© 2009 THE EBERT CO.

Three stars.

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