Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dream Weavers

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recalled the first time he had his hair chemically straightened with a caustic lye-based solution. “The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off. My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin.” For Malcolm, the wearing of a “conk” — as the chemical process was then known — became a symbol of black self-degradation.

Comedian Chris Rock takes a lighter view of the issue of African-American hair in the documentary
Good Hair, which Rock produced and co-wrote with a team including director Jeff Stilson. Rock’s premise is captivating. One day, one of his young daughters asked, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

Weaving together interviews with actresses, models, scientists, stylists, salon patrons, hair-product manufacturers and, amusingly, the Rev. Al Sharpton (who says he modeled his unique look on James Brown), Rock explores the idea that naturally kinky African hair is culturally undesirable, showing the lengths to which black women (and some men) will go to achieve straight, smooth, European-style tresses — “good hair.” Skin-corroding chemicals, labor-intensive hair extensions, entire days and thousands of dollars spent at the salon. When Tyra Banks appeared on her talk show with her “real” hair, it was a step toward exposing what is behind the smooth-haired looks of famous black women. This movie is another.

Rock is an amusing explorer as he examines the components of this mad pursuit of smooth hair. He enlists a scientist to demonstrate, by dissolving an aluminum soda can, the corrosiveness of sodium hydroxide, which is the chemical basis of hair straightener (“nap antidote,” one woman calls it). He travels to India, where he discovers the source of the human hair used in the expensive “weaves” worn by black women: impoverished, devout Hindus, who sacrifice their smooth locks in a head-shaving ritual at the Hindu temple, which then sells the shorn hair. Rock follows the hair as it travels to Los Angeles, where it is more profitable to its traders than gold.

The movie glosses over the socio-cultural implications of hair straightening, preferring to focus on comedy, as when Rock delightedly prods some black barber-shop customers to discuss the problems of having sex with women who wear don’t-touch weaves ("Go for the titties!") It misses a good opportunity to examine the tyranny of “white” beauty standards, and wastes considerable time focusing on a flashy hair-styling competition in Atlanta, in the style of cable reality shows (the movie was produced by HBO).

But Chris Rock isn’t Malcolm X (or even Spike Lee), so it's best not to lament what's not here. The movie is best appreciated for what it is: a highly entertaining look at a seldom-explored cultural phenomenon.

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