We learn through Chris Rock’s documentary that ‘good hair’ for Black Americans constitutes a small fortune and a ferocious determination to achieve the goal of straight hair at any cost, frequently braving excruciating treatments in order to obtain it.
Rock visits hair salons, barber shops, the surreal Bronner Brothers’ annual hair convention and a handful of Black social commentators to investigate the African-American, largely female, obsession with straight hair, weaves and its general upkeep that now accounts for a dizzying $9 billion industry.
There are several startling revelations in Rock’s film: the role of sodium hydroxide in relaxing hair being the most horrific. To emphasise the product’s corrosive capability, an aluminium can is placed in a jar of the substance for a matter of hours before it is entirely eroded beyond recognition. That people should lather this highly toxic product into their hair for hours on end, presumably unaware of its effects, is a genuine cause for concern as it has become increasingly linked to cases of blindness and breathing difficulties in later life. When a young girl of four is introduced sitting patiently on an over-sized salon chair, her hair slicked back with sodium hydroxide gel, it makes for alarming viewing.
In scenes that appear unbelievable on paper, there is an annual hair convention hosted by the Bronner Brothers where competing hairstylists battle it out for national recognition in extraordinary scenes, including one woman who cuts hair whilst being suspended upside down in an aquarium. It is telling the most successful businessmen in the Black hair trade are mostly Asians or Whites who could be accused of having created the industry as a result of their fear of Black empowerment, perhaps most poignantly reflected in the Afro.
There are plenty of hilarious moments in Good Hair including one incredibly camp hair stylist who allows the cameras to film him whilst he receives an apparently painful botox treatment which leads to him exclaiming through interrupted sobs, “I thought I’d feel more beautiful…I feel like I’ve been attacked by a swarm of bees!” It stands as a metaphor for an experience that many Black women feel compelled to undergo to get ‘good hair’ – a lot of discomfort in order to feel beautiful and, more importantly, to be absorbed into an accepting White society. A group of schoolgirls compound this issue as they discuss their reluctance to wear a natural bonnet, citing employers as their biggest fear who they presume will not consider them for a job if they are seen with natural hair.
There is an unfortunate lapse into Michael Moore territory when Rock travels around L.A. trying to offload a bag of African-American hair much to the befuddlement of his prospective buyers. That they should not want to buy it is in no way a reflection of their racism or prejudice – it merely exposes the obsessions of the industry: straight hair largely sourced from India. However, for the most part, Good Hair is an accomplished documentary that manages to both inform as well as entertain. It might also prove to be the best thing Rock has so far committed to screen or possibly ever will.