Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema is buzzing with excitement – the foyer is overflowing with people keen to watch, or re-watch, Good Hair – Chris Rock’s inspired documentary, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. To add to the electrifying atmosphere, ‘the Rock’ is in the building and will be fielding questions after the film.
Powerful as it is, the film is informative, provocative and of course hairlirious! Rock is a natural documentarian and it should come as no surprise considering that his stand-up has always involved social commentary.
On this occasion black hair is under the microscope. Rock has faced a backlash from some who complain that he is washing ‘our dirty linen in public’. Indeed his appearance on the Graham Norton show in May caused a stir when he commented on Michelle Obama’s hair. Some felt that this was out of line and he was somehow exposing her.
Now while no woman would want all their beauty secrets revealed, black women shouldn’t feel ashamed about dying their hair, wearing weaves, wigs or hair pieces because such hair options are increasingly used by women of all ethnicities. Hairdresser Andrew Collinge commissioned a survey, which revealed that the average British woman changes her hairstyle 104 times in her lifetime. The main reasons being “boredom’” with their current look or the end of a relationship.
However, the film can easily be misunderstood. At the Ritzy when a white man stood up to ask Rock a question, he wanted to make himself heard amid the background noise. He jokingly referenced his own hair saying “Good Hair” as a license to speak. As the pantomime boos erupted Rock warned him that the place was liable to descend into a football match…
The idea has often been kicked around that black women wear weaves etc because they want to meet western standards of beauty and have issues with identity. In the film Rock passes no judgment but he has said that if the film could make one difference, he hopes kiddie perms could be removed from shelves.
“When it comes to kids you do go, ‘Wow! Are you nuts?’ The little girl in the chair with all that relaxant (sodium hydroxide) in her hair! And she wasn’t even crying. She’s had so much of it that she’s actually used to it. Her head has a high tolerance for burning. Stuff like that makes me go, ‘Why are you putting that in a little girl’s hair?”
Chris Rock oversees an early application of relaxer
The film was inspired by Rock’s daughter Lola who asked, ‘Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” But the kernel for the film was planted years before. He says, “It was over 20 years ago, and I was in Atlanta and I stumbled across the Bronner Bros hair show. I thought straightaway that it was a movie, but back then they weren’t doing funny documentaries. There was no reality TV shows. No Internet. It was another world. So you jump ahead to now, and my daughters are having hair issues, saying, ‘How come I don’t have good hair?’ meaning, hair like they see in the media, not African hair, and I start to think, Maybe I can do a movie about that hair show now?”
But what is Good Hair? It has often been perceived as hair that is manageable and long. Biblically, your hair is your crown and glory. Imagine if you had alopecia or lost your hair due to chemotherapy, wouldn’t you simply miss your own hair whatever it was like? It is true that weaves and extensions can damage your hair through causing undue tension. Pictures of Naomi Campbell in June were testimony to this fact.
Renee Lagrange of the Black Hair Clinic in Harley Street is a Trichologist specialising in black hair, she says, “Good Hair is by definition healthy hair which will retain length and full density. The key to healthy hair is hydration. If you want “Good Hair” you have to work hard at it and be consistent.”
Hair can be a delicate subject but Rock, who has sported several hairstyles over the years including Jheri Curl, is never one to shy away from controversy. He makes jokes about public personas such as Prince.
Rock says, “… You don’t want to hurt anyone. I knew people would all be sensitive about their hair. So no one got hurt. Unless Prince is mad. But I haven’t spoken to him in a while…
“When I’m doing a show, I think a show where people are a little pissed off in the middle is a better show then a show where everybody’s just laughing mindlessly for a whole hour. I want them happy, I want them sad, and I want them clapping, and booing. That’s a show. That’s a journey.”
In the film, several celebrities speak candidly about hair including Salt n Pepa, who reveal where Pepa’s distinctive asymmetric hair style evolved from and Nia Long who debates the impact of hair and dating. Rock has had longstanding relationships with many of the celebrities, and his credits as a Director and Producer on his show Everybody Hates Chris meant that few said no, but there were exceptions.
Would you say no to Chris?
“I tried to get Diana Ross, because a lot of people talked about Diana Ross on camera. But we had to cut it out in the end, because she didn’t want to do it, and it didn’t seem right to have them talking about her without her commenting on it. Plus, it’s a documentary, and you’re asking for people’s time, and you’re not paying them for it. Someone like Diana Ross has a right to stay in her house.”
But it is not only stars that are contributing to America’s multi-billion dollar black hair industry. Rock encounters everyday people on his whistle stop tour through beauty salons and barbershops who invest a lot of money in weaves.
Members of the audience at the Ritzy wondered if Rock was moved to invest in the infrastructure of the industry and move it out of the hands of Asian business people but as Rock said, it is literally their hair that is being sold!
His most intriguing characters are part of the hairstyling battles that were reminiscent of the Afro Hair and Beauty Show. But while they make you smile, the people he meets in the scientific laboratories that demonstrate the destructive nature of relaxers or ‘creamy crack,’ and his visit to an Indian temple to see where the human hair originates, makes you wonder if the sacrifices are worth it.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene is when Rock goes into a hair shop and tries to sell real Afro hair and they decline his offer saying it wouldn’t sell. I was saddened when I once saw young girls on the bus mocking a girl because she had her hair out in an Afro and they felt it was unkempt. I wondered if we as their elders owed it to them to embrace our natural selves and remind them how beautiful it can be.
It would be sad if the next generation sees the iconic symbolism of Angela Davis’ Afro as passé. In the film, a young student said an Afro would not be suitable for the workplace. But an Afro should be seen as empowering not threatening. This was a sentiment that I tried to express in my poem I am My Hair published in Nicole Moore ‘s Hair Power Skin Revolution.
Rock did not set out to define what good hair is but why his daughter felt the need to ask the question. He doesn’t tell women how to wear their hair noting that both his wife and mother had relaxed their hair at sometime, the film is not a crusade to encourage black women to grow locks. Instead he encourages women to do what feels right for them.