Shiny Shelf

Good Hair DVD

By Stephen Lavington on 30 September 2010

Some of the most fascinating insights into human society come from the most unassuming and mundane of documentary subjects.

Take Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’. Nowadays it may now occupy such well-worn ground as to be cliché, but at the time it threw the impact that the industrialisation of food was having on the masses of the developed world into the public consciousness in a dramatic way.

At its best ‘Good Hair’ is at least as impactful: nominally a study of the multimillion dollar black hair industry it has some deeply resonant things to say about the wider question of race in American society.

Comedian Chris Rock is the driving force behind the film, narrating, producing and acting as the public face of a study that moves from the barbershops of Harlem and South Central L.A., to the glitzy Bronner Brothers trade show in Atlanta, to the temples of India which, astonishingly, provide the vast majority of the hair used in black America’s weaves and hair implants.

Given the fairly insubstantial remit this is a fascinating and – as demonstrated by the India digression – enlightening journey. Rock does not seek to preach like Spurlock or Michael Moore. He comes at the subject from a fairly critical angle (he was, he says, motivated by some comments his young daughter made as to the quality of her hair) but generally speaking lets it speak for itself.

Therefore we see an engaging run through of the prominence of ‘relaxant’, a chemical treatment derived from hydrogen peroxide, including its manufacture before being shown the effect of raw hydrogen peroxide on a drinks can (it’s not good). The next sequence shows a relaxant-based hair treatment… on a four-year-old girl.

We also see the absurd extravagance of the ‘Bronner Brothers Hair Battle Royale’, where top stylists battle it out in a test of skills of dubious practicality (styling hair upside-down for instance, or cutting it underwater) and vox pops from various celebrities – the asymmetric hairstyle in Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Push It’ video came about as a result of a hot-comb accident.

Where ‘Good Hair’ really takes off is in its broader political and sociological commentary. The linking of a thousand-dollar weave sewn into a woman’s head in Georgia to the religiously administered tonsures of Hindu temples in Chennai is a particular high point. Another, which passes by in the blink of an eye, is the equation of artificially straightened hair with decent job prospects.

It is this artificiality that comes closest to being the target for Rock. He warmly touches on the comradeship of the barber-shop but is spikier when it comes to the incredibly great and expensive lengths that black women go to with regard to their hair, primarily because of society’s equation of straight and silky – and overwhelmingly white – hair as being ‘good’.

It is important to emphasise that this is not a revolutionary creed nor flat denunciation. Rock approaches the subject aggressively at times (there is a rather heavy-handed stunt where he unsuccessfully tries to sell black hair to various suppliers of artificial weaves) but this film works as an eye-opening commentary on the complexities of race and society in the context of a subject that most would unlikely ever think twice about.

‘Good Hair’ is out on DVD now, and available from Amazon.

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By Stephen Lavington

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