It’s less a criticism than a statement of fact that Good Hair—an examination of the ways that black women care for, alter, and think about what grows on top of their heads—comes from a decidedly male perspective. The film is written, directed, and produced by men, and though its interview subjects are primarily women, the individual asking the questions and generally driving the documentary’s exploratory process is none other than Chris Rock.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such a decision; documentaries can and should be told from a multiplicity of viewpoints. Still, I think it’s fair to say that knowing the gender of those behind Good Hair goes a long way toward understanding the film’s tone of good-natured detachment. Rock’s perennial facial expression sums it up nicely: mouth grinning affably and eyes widened in bemused astonishment. “I love these women,” he seems to be saying, “but boy, can they be crazy sometimes!”
Of course, part of Good Hair‘s modus operandi is to examine the sometimes-extreme lengths to which black women will go in order to mold their hair into a desired look. From thousand-dollar weaves to treatments with scalp-scalding hair relaxer, the creation and maintenance of hair is a serious—and often seriously expensive—proposition, and Rock seems genuinely intrigued by the intricacies of the process. His travels take him to inner-city beauty shops, hair-suppliers in India, and, most memorably, Atlanta’s Bronner Brothers Hair Show. A yearly convention of hair care professionals, it showcases an extreme hairstyling concert in which participants cut hair underwater, hanging upside down, or to music provided by a sizeable live marching band. This competition forms the climax of Good Hair, and it’s a rousing piece of only-in-America theatrical gaudiness.
The film finds its strongest moments, though, in interviews with celebrities—including Nia Long, Sarah Jones, and Maya Angelou—and everyday beauty-shop denizens as they discuss the potential for beauty and self-expression in the various hairstyles they choose. Here, Rock often strikes the right balance of cheerful incredulousness and respectful fascination.
That many of these hairstyles derive from standards of beauty laid down by white tastemakers is a question that hangs over Good Hair. And while it’s not explored in the depth it could have been, it’s certainly not ignored. Rock states early on that his impetus to make the film came after one of his daughters claimed that her friend had “good hair” and she did not. Perhaps the film’s most poignant scene comes when Rock conducts a group interview with four black female high schoolers. Three of them have incorporated weaves, relaxers, and other products into their natural hair, while one wears hers in a modest afro. Their discussion of the perceptions of black hair and its connection to social acceptance becomes all the more affecting for the way director Jeff Stilson and editors Paul Marchand and Greg Nash continually cut back to the girl with the untreated hair, underlining the anxieties and subtle politics surrounding such a seemingly innocuous choice.
Here, Good Hair steps back from its jaunty tone and speedy cutting patterns and lingers on the complexities of black female self-image. The film could have stood for a few other moments like this, rather than continually focusing on humorous if minor issues, like what black men think of the cost of female hair care. Then again, any film about black women that gives the last word to Ice-T is clearly coming from a, shall we say, specific vantage point.