GOOD HAIR (Jeff Stilson/Chris Rock, USA, 2009) — 8
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that got me more in touch with my Inner Clueless Honky than this one. Even Rock’s famous “Niggas-vs.-Black-People” routine, as “inside” as that was about how black people talk among themselves, it at least concerned matters I was familiar with. This movie — good, bad or indifferent — was an eye-opener about the ins-and-outs of a subject (black hair, mostly women’s) of which I had zero knowledge. People have contests? Like this? Is that what “nappy” means? Sodium hydroxide — um, wouldn’t that stuff be caustic (there is a one-scene white chemistry professor who practically defined my reaction to that stuff)? Thousand-dollar hairdos? Really? Selling real hair? Naw …
GOOD HAIR is formally indifferent even for an info-“documentary. You can often see the camera and equipment do more than “edge” into the frame (look particularly at some interview-react shots while Rock is sitting — amateurish stuff). And I don’t know how it would seem to someone already familiar with the subject, whether it’d play like one long “No shit, Sherlock.” But for me, a white dude with naturally straight, blond, very fine hair — it was literally an educational experience
I went in with fairly low expectations, going at all only because I love Chris Rock when he’s not trying to act (as clearly wasn’t the case here). I’d expected an extended comedy routine about the relentless triviality of hairdos, which might be fun but the lowest form of pleasure — stroking one’s existing dispositions. For a sense of how indifferent I am to the subject matter, I sport a buzzcut, spent much of last night on Twitter making fun of Manny Ramirez’s hair, have never spent more than $20 on a haircut, and had to call a beauty shop a couple of weeks ago at work to ask what exactly was the legitimate use for the hydrogen peroxide product terror-suspect Zazi was supposedly stockpiling.
Instead, GOOD HAIR is the best Michael Moore movie Michael Moore hasn’t made since ROGER & ME — filled with dry, caustic but never-ugly humor tossed in at unsuspecting onscreen persons from the quizzical Everyjournalist narrator at the side. Like the majority of my Tweets, I realized during GOOD HAIR. Also like the Moore of 20 years ago, GOOD HAIR has a clear and pointed POV that it doesn’t try to hide, but one that never takes over the film. The women Rock interviews in beauty shops are in on the jokes at their expense without ever being reduced to a “target” for the sake of elucidating some authorial thesis.
The film has five large sections — the framing devices, to which the film frequently recurs, of an Atlanta haircutting contest (fun) and Chris asking himself what he’d tell his daughters (unneeded) about their hair. The other sections consecutively concern hair relaxants, the use of weaves, where the hair comes from, and how hair affects relations (in every sense) between black men and black women. Rock interviews the contest teams, ordinary people in barber and beauty shops, and lots of big-name black Americans, including artists and singers who need to keep a certain public image. They and he all deliver — both intellectually and comedically, and often both at the same time. Maya Angelou’s first weave, the backstory of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” video, Al Sharpton’s first straightening (the story involves James Brown), a 6-year-old describing why you get perms, “kiddie beer,” “creamy crack,” etc. There are even some priceless scenes where Rock tries to sell black hair to salons, and the owners — mostly Asian, but one black — react like he’s trying to sell them crap sandwiches. Rock’s persona manages to keep this subject matter interesting and make palatable an angry subtext against using white looks as the standard for black beauty, against narcissism and beauty-worship, and misguided priorities. It takes a special movie to have me nodding along in agreement with Al Sharpton.
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