November 11, 2009

Taking It Home: Good Hair

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

Maintaining "good hair" really couldn't be any worse for you...

Chris Rock's Good Hair is kind of like one big weave: it's fun, it looks great, and it moves naturally, but you really don't know what actually exists at the roots, underneath the gloss and sheen. Framing the documentary with a Morgan Spurlock-like "I'm a new dad and now I have to figure out how to make the world better for my daughter" setup, Rock casually bounces between interviews with hairstylists, people on the street, and Hollywood celebrities. He travels from Beverly Hills to Harlem to India to Atlanta, and makes a lot of people laugh along the way, including the audience.

But to what end, exactly, nobody really knows. The average person will leave Good Hair knowing a little bit more about black people's hair but next to nothing new about racial identity in American culture, which is what the film so easily could have explored with just a little more investigation. Maybe it's unfair to blame Chris Rock for not probing further, though, since the only thing more audacious than a black man making a film about black women's hair in the first place would be a white man making a film about black women's hair (which isn't quite as curious as the reality of Jason Griggers in this film, a white man venerated as an expert sylist of black women's hair).

In any case it would be unfair for me not to recommend Good Hair, because even the few insights that can be gleaned from it are enough to get you thinking about, for example, why the global market on "ethnic" hair care is dominated by whites and Asians. The Rev. Al Sharpton, in a surprisingly understated and altogether charming interview, astutely observes that something must be wrong when African-Americans have almost no involvement or investment in a market that caters exclusively to African-Americans. It certainly is odd to think about. Or what about the millions of dollars black women collectively spend on their hair care without ever considering the economic, emotional, or even physical damages some procedures may have? Yes, something is wrong here.

Rock intersperses his travels with Indiana Jones-like animated maps, a red arrow being drawn from one city to another, and as he moved from India (where the vast majority of women's hair to the U.S., I was struck by the realization that the trade routes for the hair that many black women wear parallels the slave routes that carried many of their ancestors to the West. Indeed, if there is one thing black women have not been liberated from in this country it's the right to wear their hair in its natural state.

The truth is that we've been successfully brainwashed to think that most black women have naturally straight hair, and as Rock's interviewees describe, having it that way is truly the only way they can feel "accepted" in our society. You'll remember the New Yorker magazine cover earlier this year that sparked controversy for showing Barack Obama in Islamic dress. What you might have forgotten is that the artist also made a deliberate decision to depict Michelle Obama with her hair in an afro - a socially acceptable way to symbolize a wild, rebellious, or militant attitude. In this day and age the First Lady of the United States of America has to have her straightened and relaxed - she just has to. And with our taxes paying her husband's salary, which we can assume possibly pays some part of her presumably high hair care costs, we are, by proxy, paying to make sure Michelle Obama straightens her hair. A a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but is it not still worth considering?

Maybe I had unreasonably high expectations for Good Hair to educate as well as it entertained, but no disappointment was as sore as the the fact that India.Arie was neither interviewed or featured in this film. Maybe it was an oversight (which would be almost impossible to believe), or maybe she declined, but for having written what I would literally consider one of the best songs of the decade - about black women's hair, incidentally - one would think somebody would mention "I Am Not My Hair" (well, Eve does mention it, but she just takes the line and doesn't mention the song).

Below is the video for "I Am Not My Hair" (feat. Akon), along with the lyrics, which definitely deserved some consideration as part of the discussion in Good Hair.

What did you take home?

See I can kinda recall
Little ways back, small tryin' to ball
Always been black and my hair I tried it all
I even went flat, had a gumdee curly top and all the crap, now
Tryin' to be appreciated
Nappy headed brothers never had no ladies
Then I hit by the barber shop real quick
Had em give me little twist and it drove them crazy
And then I couldn't get no job
No corporate wouldn't hire no dreadlocks
Then I thought about my dogs on the block
Kinda understand why they chose a stealin' rock
Was it the hair that got me this far? (uh-huh)
All these girls these cribs these cars (uh-huh)
Hate to say it but it seem so flawed
Cause success didn't come 'till i cut it all off (uh-huh)

Little girl with the press and curl
Age eight I got a Jheri curl
Thirteen then I got a relaxer
I was a source of so much laughter
Fifteen when it all broke off
Eighteen and then I went all natural
February two thousand and two I
Went and did what I had to do
Cause it was time to change my life
To become the women that I am inside
Ninety-seven dreadlocks all gone
Looked in the mirror for the first time and saw that

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within

Good hair means curls and waves
Bad hair means you look like a slave
At the turn of the century
It's time for us to redefine who we be
You can shave it off like a South African beauty
Or get in on lock like Bob Marley
You can rock it straight like Oprah Winfrey
If it's not what's on your head
It's what's underneath and say


Who cares if you don't like that
With nothin' to lose post it with a wave cap
When the cops wanna to harass
Cause I got waves
But he's sayin' nothin' like that
Not in my days (noo...)
Now you gotta change all feeling's
Based on one another by their appearance
Yes, India I feel ya girl
Now go on and talk the rest of the world

(oh, oh, oh)
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? nooo...
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
I am expressing my creativity...

Breast cancer and chemotherapy
Took away her crown and glory
She promised God if she was to survive
She would enjoy everyday of her life ooh...
On national television
Her diamond eyes are sparkling
Bald headed like a full moon shining
Singing out to the whole wide world like

[Chorus 2x] 

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within


  1. Michelle Obama made around 200-300k a year the last few years from her position at the University of Chicago Hospital. Although she is no longer in that positon, I'm guessing she doesn't rely on Barack's Presidential salary to get her hair did.

    (singing)And that's your Anal Retentive Comment of the Monnnntthhh, cha!

    Some interesting stuff here though, but as a white male who hasn't seen this movie, I'm not commenting on anything with a ten foot pole.

    (singing)And that's your White Guy Race Comment of the Monnnnthhh, cha!

  2. Haha, love it!

    Your first comment is not anal retentive at all. You're just calling me out on that stretch hypothesis. I'm sure Michelle Obama has earned her own millions over the years like Barack, but since she is technically unemployed and unpaid, I had to make the leap to the president's salary.

    Specifics aside, my point is that a lot of money is going toward making her and her hair look like Jackie Onassis. Not that her appearance has really changed from before she moved into the White House, but still, in the grand scheme of things it still strikes me as one of those weird social norms that everybody accepts. Like Jimmy Fallon hosting the Tonight Show, or OK Soda being discontinued after only two years.

    And as far as your second comment goes, I wouldn't say either circumstance should preclude you from commenting on the rest of this. Nobody is that sensitive around here, and in the greater interest of all of us learning something I'd rather we not shy away from the touchy subjects.

    Speaking of which, I should clarify that I'm not saying hair weaves are an extension of slavery, just that black people's hair in general is still somewhat held in bondage, and people of color in general from around the world often end up changing their appearance here to "fit in". It takes a lot of self-confidence for somebody to wear an afro, or cornrows, or dreadlocks, because common knowledge says those aren't simply hairstyles but statements, when they are, in fact, simply hairstyles.

    I guess these are some of the issues of identity I wish Rock would have addressed a little bit more, instead of spending so much on time a hairstylist competition. And he spent far too little time exploring the history of marketing campaigns that produced the idea of "good hair" in the first place.

  3. It's interesting regardless because I would naively just think Michelle is trying to look "good" like a strong, professional, attractive women (or First Lady) and not that she was deriding the natural African American hair folicle. Don't we all do things "unnatural" in this sense to present ourselves as whatever we want to be? I'd concede that there may be additional pressure, time and cost involved with this particluar issue but I wouldn't discount that this is likely also what these women want to look like. They think it looks good. Whether that is because of some unconscious racism perpetuated by Euro-Asian Jheri Curl conglomerates or simple aesthetics, is an interesting question that it sounds like Rock doesn't delve quite deeply enough into.

  4. Yes, that's exactly what I'm getting at. It’s not any criticism of them and I'm sure those strong and successful women like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey want to look they way they do, but I'm getting at that unconscious aspect of it - do they want to look that way because over the last century we've all been conditioned to expect them to have straightened and relaxed hair?

    I really don't know, but if so, and for the amount of money spent and physical damage suffered from the chemicals (Rock spends a good chunk of times in a lab, and it’s scary), well I find that kind of outrageous. But the question of “where is this coming from?” is never broached. It’s just taken as fact that black people have to have “good hair” to get along in this world, and we all have a lot of fun laughing about the cost and customs of it all.

  5. You make a number of interesting points, many of which I'm sure the could and maybe even should have made (I've not seen it yet, but really want to). HOWEVER, you have to remember the source. I'm not saying that Chris Rock isn't capable of making deeper, larger points about society and race and such, but I doubt it was ever his intention. He's a comedian, a group of people that are naturally (it seems) more curious than the rest of it, and I imagine from what I've heard of the origins of the film, that curiousity was the main driving force behind the production of the film. To drive that point further, wouldn't it seem likely that if he were to make a more penetrating, serious film that his core audience would feel alienated? It sounds like the tone is fitting with his previous works.

  6. Great points, especially since I recently found out that Rock's original intention was only to document the very hair stylist competition that I think receives too much attention. But I still think he had a much more interesting subject here than he even realized.

    You mention his tone and style of comedy, and I have to admit, there were a few scenes here where he seemed to be grasping for punchlines. He'd be interviewing someone and they would set him up for a perfect joke, but he just didn't seem to connect on a lot of them. I don't know, it surprised me, I always figured he had a lightning quick wit. Still some funny scenes, though.

  7. This is right that the average person will leave Good Hair knowing a little bit more about black people's hair but next to nothing new about racial identity in American culture.

  8. Thanks, Term Papers. Now that the awards have come and gone and Good Hair has been all but forgotten, I should clarify that I still think it's a film worth seeing, even for the few insights it provides.


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