Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review - Good Hair

Who could have guessed that black women's hair was such a complex and contentious issue? Good Hair is a film that tells you everything you could ever wish to know about weaves, relaxers and the multi-billion dollar industry that has capitalised on the black female desire to have 'good' hair, whatever that is. According to Jeff Stilson's documentary, good hair for many black women equates to white hair, so it is understandable that Chris Rock was perturbed to be asked by his young daughter whether her hair qualifies as 'good'. That question prompted the comedian to investigate the issue in this fun documentary, a film that sees him travelling the globe and interviewing people from all walks of life in an effort to understand just why black women feel compelled to go through the pain and expense that 'good' hair involves.

It's eye-opening stuff and it's often very funny. Rock spends time in barbershops and hair salons in order to attain both male and female perspectives on the subject, with the women he meets being completely unapologetic about the thousands of dollars they spend on their hair while the men relate anecdotes about dating women who refuse to let their hair be touched during sex. The comic is a very likable guide – compare his easygoing vibe here to the stiff and strained acting performance he recently gave in Death at a Funeral – and the people he meet all seem to be comfortable and happy to share their points of view in his presence. Beyond American shores, Rock travels to India where he observes a Hindu head-shaving ritual of purification – the hair is collected and sold for a major profit – and listens with astonishment to tales of girls' hair being stolen as they sleep. Alongside his encounters with the general public, Rock has assembled an impressive array of celebrity contributors who air their views in interview segments, with Ice-T, Al Sharpton and Raven-Symoné among the appealingly candid stars. Throughout Good Hair there's a nice balance between the time allotted to the famous and non-famous alike, and the editing by Paul Marchand and Greg Nash keeps the tone light and jaunty.

That tone can be at odds with some of the more unsettling areas Good Hair cautiously ventures into, though. There are scenes here that depict the dark flipside to the film's jokey discussion of black hair, but Rock and Stilson seem unwilling to push those angles. Perhaps that's unfair – after all, Rock's background is observational comedy rather than journalistic rigour – but it's frustrating to watch a film about the extremes of female beauty that's only skin-deep. The history and context of the issue is only briefly touched upon, as is the disturbing trend for applying toxic relaxant to toddlers' heads, and there is little investigation of the ethics behind the enormous industry that promotes this particular look. One scene stands out for me as the most crucial and sadly underdeveloped in the film, and it involves four black students who are all on the verge of entering the workforce for the first time. Three of them bluntly tell their companion that they wouldn't take her seriously if she turned up at an interview with her natural afro hair, but the questions this exchange raises about black self-image and value of a natural look in today's society are barely commented upon. The subject of Good Hair is a great deal more complicated and politically loaded than the filmmakers seem happy to admit.

Instead, the film finds a more comfortable spot for itself at the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show, a glitzy haircutting contest that's so ludicrous and over-the-top I can't even begin to describe it here. The decision to follow four aspiring contestants on the road to the final gives Good Hair a satisfying sense of structure and a natural climactic point to end on. In the end, does it matter that Good Hair is happier poking fun at the absurdities of the hair industry than getting to the heart of it? I've seen the film twice now and my first viewing was when it played as the opening night film for the BFI's Black Film Month. I was one of the very few white male faces in the audience, and the women around me roared and cheered their appreciation throughout. Their laughter was the laughter of recognition, making it clear that Rock and Stilson have hit upon an issue that matters a great deal to the black community and their film is almost guaranteed to entertain a wide audience beyond that, even if it never really answers some of the most interesting questions it raises.