Documentary films are often powerful in doing what typical mainstream media outfits can’t: accidentally reveal truths. There’s a moment in comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair when a group of young black women discuss the realities of having straightened hair in order to secure work. When her friends express their concern for her, the lone woman with naturally styled hair has a look on her face that says more about the underlying tensions of the issue of black women and hair than do the other two hours of film. But before the viewer can fully engage in the moment, there’s a cut.
The filmic cut is emblematic of a truth evident in both the form and content of Good Hair: a practice of simultaneously exploiting and promoting black women all for a bottom line—be it in the male-dominated black female hair care industry or in a mainstream film about black women that doesn’t have women of any race in principal production roles.
At the root of the colorful, fast-paced filmic spectacle that is Good Hair belies a $9 billion dollar global industry in which men, whether they are in the U.S. or Asia, control production, distribution, and ultimately are the major profiteers of black female hair products. Female workers in Asia comb through the hair, Asian female clerks in the U.S. sell it, and black women pay upwards of $1,000 for hair weave. So when black (male) business owners complain about Asian merchants impeding their “right” to control the industry, one wonders if it matters who’s in control when all scenarios leave black women as the economically exploited.
How does this relate to the production choices in Good Hair? Consider an indie film about the same topic–In Our Heads About Our Hair, a lower budget, work in progress doc from first time filmmaker Anu Prestonia. Within a few minutes of In Our Heads, black female scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin offers a succinct historical context to black women and hair care. Griffin even says the R-word: racism. (Rock has Al Sharpton and Paul Mooney offer up snappier analyses) While Rock relies on a white male scientist to explain the health impact of sodium hydroxide-laden hair perms, Anu actually finds a black woman, environmental activist Majora Carter, to discuss the impact of those compounds on the earth.
You’d need an entirely separate essay to review the misogyny inherent in the level of airtime afforded to the many men in the film (rapper Ice-T being the most prominent) who joke about the multiple costs of love and sex with women who straighten or weave in their hair. In Our Heads provides a rich example of the black female subjectivity that should rightfully be central in a film about black women and hair. And it’s not coincidental that Prestonia worked with a largely female film crew.
Any successes that Good Hair may boast must be underscored by the fact that currently, a famous black male comedian will have a decidedly easier time making a film about black women than likely any black woman will, famous or not (okay, Oprah could do it). The question is, though, can he make it funny and non exploitative? After seeing Good Hair, the answer is Not yet.
I won’t deny Rock’s comedic brilliance—you will laugh often. Nor will I disregard his motives—he starts the film as an ode of sorts to his two daughters. Perhaps Good Hair’s popularity (assumed due to a fairly rigorous promotional campaign) will open the door for films like In Our Heads. But the film remains a sobering example of how a film about black women is not actually for us.