There’s no question that in Good Hair, Chris Rock brings the funny. (Trolling the streets of Los Angeles, peddling “black hair” that no one wants.) There’s no question that he brings the outrage. (Showing a preschooler submitting to the “creamy crack”—a chemical relaxer.) There’s no question that he brings the dirt, getting celebrities to tell it. (Nia Long on her fake hair: “Weave sex is a little awkward.”)
But while Rock’s foray into the tangled web of black women and their hair, is indeed very, very funny, very, very outrageous, and at times very, very revealing, there are two things that he does not bring to the conversation: Context and compassion.
Which is too bad, considering that Rock’s stated purpose for doing his documentary was his shock at his young daughter’s plaintive question, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” Good Hair as in, “blow hair,” “silky,” “nice,” “wavy,” “relaxed and nice hair,” the type of locks not typically found on the heads of folks descended from south of the Sub-Sahara. The hair thing is a question that’s long bedeviled black folks living in a post-colonial world, the subject of doctoral dissertations, books and yes, documentaries. (And if you think that only African-American women struggle with the good hair meme, then you’ve never set foot inside a Dominican beauty parlor.)
In his quest to get to the—ahem—roots of the good-hair obsession, Rock travels the world, from the Harlem beauty parlors to the Olympics of hair shows to Hindu Temples in India where devotees shave their heads in a ritual of purification. And along the way, he unearths some startling revelations: Human hair is India’s No. 1 export; thieves cut off the hair of unsuspecting women and sell it on the black market.
Black hair is a $9 billion business, but only a handful of the companies that cater to that market are black-owned. Salt-n-Pepa’s asymmetrical ‘dos from the “Push It’’ era happened when Pepa came out on the losing end of chemical straightener. And back in the day, Ice-T willingly underwent the “torture” of the creamy crack because he thought he needed good hair to dominate his women. Apparently, it’s hard out there for a pimp.
Except for a few passing remarks from actress Salli Richardson and Long, on how the pursuit of good hair is about being “the lighter the brighter the better,” Rock doesn’t delve into the historical context of good hair. He doesn’t bother to tell us that the straight hair fixation has everything to do centuries of slavery, forced miscegenation and the resulting intra-racial caste system within the black community. Not every black woman has a weave or a relaxer; and not every weave or perm is evidence of self-hate. (Actress Tracie Thoms of Cold Case is the only one holding it down for the natural sisters in Good Hair.)
There is an undercurrent of misogyny at work here: Black women come off as desperately vain, using layaway to pay for weaves and hitting up their men to finance their wallet-busting habit. It’s interesting to note that while Rock’s adorable daughters make silent cameos, his wife does not appear in Good Hair.
I would have liked to have heard from her about Rock’s Good Hair obsession; that would have added some context, maybe even some compassion.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.