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Comedian Chris Rock Examines €Good Hair€ in New Film

Shantella Y. Sherman | 9/30/2009, 6:59 p.m.

Actor and comedian Chris Rock explained that his three-year-old daughter€s desire for €good hair€ prompted him to investigate the psychological stranglehold straight or €good hair€ has on African American women. The investigation takes Rock to some of the nation€s most hair conscious cities in the world, including Atlanta, Ga., home of the Black-owned Bronner Brothers Hair Supply conglomerate and their annual hairstyle competition.

Despite the informative value of certain aspects of the production, €Good Hair€ is anything but a documentary. In fact, with few exceptions, the film offers little more than a moving comedy sketch, such as the film €Borat,€ in which the regulars of Black barbershops, nail salons and beauty supply shops, play bit parts.

Missing from the production is any historical, social, and psychological context. For instance, the national beauty aesthetic under which most African American women are forced to exist is noted, but unanalyzed. Black women explain that they prefer to wear their hair in natural styles, but are considered unattractive unless the hair is straight. Social pressure to conform to modes of modernity, as prescribed at the turn of the century, continue to function in Black America.

Nappy hair is still looked upon with disdain and ridiculed and €Good Hair€ does little to answer the question as to why. The work does highlight some key issues with Black hair that include: straightening Black hair requires the use of dangerous chemical solvents or extreme heat and lasts only six to eight weeks.

To HBO€s credit, Rock exposes the dangers of chemical relaxers alongside a scientist who demonstrates how sodium hydroxide, the active ingredient in chemical hair relaxers, can disintegrate an aluminum can. But while the all-Black male production team allows Lauren London, Salt-N-Pepa, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Nia Long, and, quite distressingly, Al Sharpton to see the chemical scalp, forehead, and neck burns they endured to have straight hair, the reasons why they did so are sidestepped. The use of chemical hair relaxers is likened to an addiction among Black women nicknamed €creamy crack€ in the production.

Perhaps most disturbing is the absolute dismissal of natural hair salons and the rebirth of natural styles, including dread- and sister locs, afros, braids, and cornrows. Complicating the view of natural hair styles today is their association with 1960s Black consciousness movement when millions of women ceased to press and relax their hair.

Rock€s examination could have been enhanced by qualifying counterpoints, including the use of chemical relaxers and straighteners by other races and ethnicities of women, including Caucasian, Asian, and Latinas. Rock walks a fine line between laughing with and laughing at Black women in pursuit of €good hair.€

The obvious conclusion to much of Rock€s examination is that some Black women continue to struggle with inferiority complexes about their hair. But since that isn€t funny, Rock pulls back and moves instead into another wasted segment, with Black men complaining about having to pay for Black women€s hair upkeep, but without the benefit of being able to run their fingers through it. By the time a brother in a hair salon announces €that€s why I prefer White women,€ the film loses all credibility.

Iconic author Maya Angelou points to the fact that she had her first chemical relaxer at 70. Not even this revelation alerts Rock and Company to the fact that a vast majority of Black women press and curl their hair, wear wigs or extensions as beauty enhancers, and were comfortable in doing so.

When pressed about his attempt to make humorous an issue many Black women still consider a traumatizing dilemma, Rock said in an interview with the Informer, €It€s all in fun. Surely, I am not trying to stigmatize anyone or make fun of these women€s pain, but I am a comedian. There are a lot of things that are sensitive, but that does not mean that we can€t still find humor in them,€ Rock said.

The strongest segments of Rock€s work are those that examine India€s Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, where female Hindu adherents shave their heads bald as an act of praise. Their hair, once debugged and girded into tracks, is sold to mostly African American women as hair weaves and wigs. Overall, Rock presents a pseudo-informative template upon which serious dialogue can develop. However, if you€re looking for real examination of African American beauty aesthetics and hair, keep looking.

€Good Hair€ opens in select cities Fri., Oct. 9 and nationwide Fri., Oct. 23.