Posted: 10/11/2009


Good Hair

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Good Hair is a great lighthearted, but serious, documentary by Chris Rock that sheds (no pun intended) a telescopic light on the trials and tribulations of black women around their search for manageable, convenient hairstyles.
Rock enlists celebrities such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Nia Long, Raven-Symoné, Salt ‘N Pepa, Dr. Maya Angelou and Ice-T to share stories of just what is considered “good hair” in the black community, as opposed to natural hair.

Rock was inspired to make the movie after one of his daughters asked him why she didn’t have good hair like her white classmate.
A sad reality revealed in the documentary is that not much money is kept in the Black community, (the owner of Dudley’s products out of North Carolina says there are only four black-owned Black hair products companies in the United States) out of the billions of dollars that are spent annually on weaves, perms, wigs and other “tricks of the trade” that black women employ to make themselves into what they consider beautiful.

Now, I need to start off by saying that I wear locks and have had them almost 10 years. My decision to grow locks came after about 10 years or so of a faded cut and then a mini afro. Before that, from my teens to mid 30’s, I wore either straightened hair or a perm.
The obsession with permed or weaved hair to satisfy some form of acceptance in the mainstream is lost on me. But I might have to retract that statement. Black women will scream that they are not looking for acceptance by mainstream society when they decide to perm their hair or get a weave or wear a wig. Most will contend that it’s for convenience sake or allows for diversity. But more than a few black women, as explained by Rock during talk-show interviews leading up to the release of Good Hair, are upset that he’s shared the “secrets” of our shiny, luscious locks for the entire world to see.

Rock travels to many towns to research his documentary, but Atlanta is the background for the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, and Rock interviews contestants in this semi-annual hair show, and even visits their salons to see just why they are so popular. Good Hair culminates in the show and the hair expo, where hundreds of black hair products are sold, mostly by white merchants to black consumers.

But Rock also travels to India, the Mecca for human hair, where he shows that a religious ritual requires that people shave their hair as a form of sacrifice to a Hindu god. And this shorn hair ends up being used by millions of black women throughout the United States.
Rock visits a chemist who shows just how toxic and dangerous the main chemical, sodium hydroxide, in relaxer can be. He immerses a soda can in the solvent, only to have the can disintegrate within hours. The chemist offers that many beauticians, after years of applying relaxer on their clients’ heads, have ingested poison into their lungs.

Further disgust is shown when beauticians in Good Hair tell stories of black girls as young as 3 years old receiving perms by having the caustic chemicals slathered on their scalps because their moms feel their hair is not “straight” enough or the toddlers feel pressure from other classmates who have perms or extensions.
He also interviews black men on what they consider good hair, whether they would rather be with a woman with natural hair and just what role they play in helping a woman finance her “creamy crack” addiction, as relaxer is defined in the movie. And touching a black women’s hair after a trip to the beautician is certainly out of the question, the men say.

But the hours upon hours of labor that are required to sew a weave into a woman’s hair or to apply a perm are small issues compared to the money that is spent. One beautician admitted that a good weave could cost her customers between $1,000 and $3,000—but she proclaimed that she accepted lay-away. Rock wonders how women making a modest living are able to afford weekly or monthly hair maintenance. The men in the documentary admit that they often feel intimated when approaching a woman whose hair is really well tended to, because they know they are going to be out of money within the relationship to keep that woman’s hair maintained.
Sharpton laments that many women won’t pay their rent if they need to use it for their scheduled “hair fix.”

Good Hair is a great documentary, which has many more entertaining and educational points than I’ve shared in this review. And I don’t view Good Hair as spilling the beans about black women’s hair maintenance. I view it as a lesson to all black women to think how this dependency on hair styles might be more at the expense of their cultural identity—a loss that could never be measured by mere currency. I think maybe sistahs might consider other ways to wear certain styles and still keep a little money in their designer purses. Now that’s fodder for another documentary—the money both black and white women spend on designer shoes and purses in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago, who just happens to wear locks.

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