Chris Rock is a comedian, not a documentarian. The success of Good Hair and it’s need-to-be-noted but ultimately irrelevant failures hinge on never forgetting this rather obvious fact. What that means is the movie indulges in being funny first and foremost, pretty much always at the expense of any excoriation.
Good Hair’s kinda conceit came from Rock’s two daughters, one of whom asked him why she didn’t have “good hair.” The set-up suggests that we’ll explore why his daughter thinks of her hair as, um, not good, but the movie actually does little of that. Instead it simply traces the ways “good hair” is attained and sorta holds the whole thing together via a twice-a-year, for-a-prize-of-20k hair-styling contest, which is so low-rent and absurd that Rock wisely steps back and quietly grins and primarily sympathizes with the competitors’ unimposing goals.
This sympathy makes the movie, but it’s a strange choice for a comedian and it’s out-of-step with the perspective of most humorous, politically-minded, star-driven documentaries. Rock’s not Sacha Baron-Cohen or Michael Moore here; he’s more a shticky Errol Morris or a hammy Werner Herzog, fascinated and moved by his subject to the point that the movie’s quality suffers even as its joshing humanity expands. Folksy jibing and absurd jokes always come first, but that doesn’t mean Good Hair doesn’t meander around some really interesting details, make some really good points, and stick itself out there. It’s neither snarky nor entirely understanding of the phenomenon and sub-phenomenons (hair relaxer, weaves, hair-stylist sub-culture, etc) surrounding “good hair.”
A cringe-inducing look at sodium hydroxide (what “relaxer” consists of) is followed by a brief scene in which one of the competing hair stylists, Jason Griggers (a gay, white Southern mysterioso whose sheer stylist skills seem unmatched) is shown getting botox. After close-ups of hydroxide-created head scars and testimonies—everyone from Nia Long to regular ass people to Ice-T—describing the ineffable pain of applied relaxer, a dude getting junk inserted into his face with a needle is even more awful and absurd. And it’s a lot more white. The quick scene’s brilliant, connecting the dots between relaxer and Hollywood’s latest superficial trend; it’s directly aimed at the chunk of the audience that doesn’t recognize the parallels.
It’s at points like this—or when Rock traces the hair used for weaves not only to India, but to a temple where Hindus sacrifice their hair and from that temple to, essentially, hair dealers who sell it for a lot of money—that you expect the angry, deconstructive comedian of his generation to bust out, but he never does. He lets the botox scene speak for itself and he quietly quips that the temple is second only to the Vatican in terms of a church collecting major dough and leaves it at that. But that’s all he needs to do because as zany as Good Hair’s premise is, it’s also so starkly rooted in racism, racial expectations and in-fighting, and lots of other nasty stuff. So the movie’s reserved tone is Rock laughing to keep from crying and at the same time genuinely trying to understand.
This is the attitude of the film’s subjects as well. While the competitors are absurdly dead-serious, they are also sincere and hardly worthy of scorn. The plethora of black celebrities interviewed all have a gulp of joy in their voices when they discuss the ins and outs of straightening. And the women all look stunning, glowing even, because they’re being seriously asked about a topic they’re so often clowned for and also because the camera’s an inch or two closer to them than the average talking head, which has the odd effect of idealizing them—and their candor—even as they pull off the veil on the cult of the weave.
Rock and his interviewees’ attitude is healthy, not politically neutered. It’s just totally not interested in holding-up the celebration of “naturalism” that’s expected, even demanded, from a black filmmaker (though Rock didn’t direct the movie and it’s co-written by others, he’s clearly the filmmaker here). Plus, it’s much more political to have such a plethora of opinions and ideas on hair just roll out, honestly and directly. They’re free from Rock’s thesis because he doesn’t actually have one, save for not being a dick about the ripe-for-snark topic of hair and weaves and jheri curls and relaxer and stuff.
The humane, jokey tone Rock adopts here is a much better, though less popular approach to loaded minutiae like hair straightening. Good Hair resides between two default docu-perspectives (flat-out mocking or getting stone-faced and edging out the potential for laughs) and it’s all the better for it.
Brandon Soderberg is author of the sites No Trivia, The Biographical Dictionary of Rap, and Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader?.