Chris Rock asks why his 4 year-old daughter thinks she has ‘bad hair’, what exactly constitutes ‘good hair’ and Josh gets an education.
As a white, British male, one could be forgiven for assuming that the nuances of a documentary investigating the amount African-American women spend on hair-products might be lost on me. You might also be right – but while the odd baseball reference and the star-power of Raven-Symoné’s talking-head appearance sail cleanly over my head, Good Hair as a whole provides a manageable access course to the strange world of weaves and perms (fun fact: if you think you might know the latter, you don’t), allowing the blissfully ignorant to become a little more informed.
The ‘story’ Rock presents is broken down into BBC Bitesize sections, consisting of conversations with regular people in salons and barbers; talking-heads from celebrities, such as the aforementioned Raven (of That’s So Raven fame – allegedly); interviews with the CEOs profiting from this lucrative market; and the side-show of a high-stakes hair-styling contest apparently included to make the informative parts easier to digest.
That isn’t to say Good Hair is a documentary that serves only to present the world of black hair to oblivious outsiders. Rock appears genuinely driven to answer his daughter’s question of why her nappy hair is widely considered ‘bad’ and shows as much concern for the regular women spending thousands on imported Indian hair as he does pride for those graduating with diplomas in the alchemy of making black women’s hair look like white women’s.
While it’s reductive to approach this as a study of a delusion of beauty unique to black women (their same obsession with flattening their hair can be seen in innumerable products targeted to make Caucasian hair ‘fuller’) it is an all-to-rare pleasure to see a specific culture represented by someone that grew up with it, yet has the objectivity to question and challenge it.
It is in Rock’s omnipresent narration that the film hinges. Funny, honest, and open-handed, he proves a far more likable guide here than in any number of his recent film roles. He displays a magic touch in interviews – no matter who the subject is, they appear at ease and open up to offer rare insight in their world – but while he is a natural entertainer it’s when the conversation demands more journalistic enquiry that his repartee begins to crack. Apparently unsure whether to be chummy or critical he often smiles ambiguously and allows post-production sound-effects and heavy-handed commentary to carry the brunt.
This may be a flaw inherent in the too-many-cooks production model. Rock may indeed have been inspired to make the documentary for his daughter and act as writer, narrator and interviewer but with his fellow comedian Jeff Stilson co-writing and sitting in the director’s chair and three other writers lending a pen its no wonder that the film often seems to swing wildly from Fahrenheit 9/11 one minute to Spellbound the next.
Nevertheless, unlike lesser documentaries, Good Hair stands up to comparison with such heavy hitters and comes out swinging. Like all great documentaries it provides a window on to a world many people wouldn’t know exists, let alone have the opportunity to explore. It won’t wow you with its depth and complexity, but then its rather apt that such a story be presented straight, simple, and with barely a kink.