Untangling ‘Good Hair.’

I saw Good Hair the night it came out, but I’ve been holding off writing about it because my feelings about it keep changing. I’m still not sure just what to make of it. It’s a really, really funny film, but it throws out all sorts of eye-popping numbers and images without really commenting on any of them or even bothering to ask any decent follow-up questions. There’s a scene in which Chris Rock and a chemist demonstrate that the active ingredient in hair relaxer is so toxic that it can melt a soda can in a few hours. Okay…so how much of this stuff is in the typical dose of a relaxer that goes on someone’s head? And what does this mean for the health of the hairdressers who handle it for a living? Neither gets asked. Indeed, the history is hair-straightening is never even touched upon (C.J. Walker’s near-total absence from this movie* is unjustifiable).

And then there’s the powerful segment in India — after software, human hair is the country’s biggest export — which also really unsettled Anna at over at Jezebel.

I will give Chris major points for the segment in which he goes to India to see how the human hair used in weaves is obtained. The resulting footage was damning: Human beings in a third world country reduced to their body parts, which are then sold off so that comparatively rich women in the first world can use them as adornments. Ugh. Seeing those swaths of hair being sorted, laid out, combed through and spun into perfect bundles of shiny ebony silk made me sick to my stomach.

Again, Rock’s take on this segment is essentially “That’s crazy, right?” Why, yes! It is crazy! One might even venture to say that it’s unnerving enough to necessitate a change in consumer behavior! But the closest thing we get to any sort of critique from Rock on this or anything else is his cheesy dodge of a closing line, which goes something like this: “I guess when my daughter is old enough to decide whether to get a weave or a perm, I’ll tell her what’s on top of her head is less important than what’s in it.” And with that, me and the natural-haired woman with whom I went to see the movie rolled our eyes.

*The homie NiaTrue on Twitter reminded me that Walker’s great -granddaughter A’Leila Bundles makes an appearance in the movie, but they certainly don’t explain who she is or why she’s being spotlighted.

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15 thoughts on “Untangling ‘Good Hair.’

  1. Melissa October 19, 2009 at 10:29 am Reply

    I can’t believe they didn’t do more on C.J. Walker. I need to see it for myself and will probably be rolling my eyes as well at the cheesy ending statement.

    I am mostly looking forward to the part on India. I have heard mixed reviews so far on the doc.

  2. shani-o October 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm Reply

    Re: caustic chemicals, Roger Ebert (who is married-to-a-black-woman certified) mentioned in his review that the chemicals that dissolved the can (lye) are not what most relaxers use these days. Although, having suffered from more than a few really awful chemical burns from a perm, I can attest that the no-lye brands are just as bad.

  3. Monica October 19, 2009 at 12:36 pm Reply

    I think he was trying to not alienate the many women with relaxed hair and weaves who were going to see the movie. It was the equivalent of a really happy tacked on resolution at the end of a serious episode of “Family Ties.” There’s still a great documentary to be done on black women who use harsh relaxers to straighten their hair, and hopefully this film inspired someone to make it.

    • G.D. October 19, 2009 at 12:40 pm Reply

      yeah, I got the feeling that he was punting in part not to make anyone in the audience too uncomfortable.

      There’s still a great documentary to be done on black women who use harsh relaxers to straighten their hair, and hopefully this film inspired someone to make it.

      word.

  4. Danielle October 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm Reply

    I too thought it was strange that they featured A’Leila Bundles and didn’t mention that she was Madame CJ Walker’s great-granddaughter; I was hoping they would do a segment on Walker and her legacy and it never happened. I saw Good Hair on opening night too and I still don’t quite know what to make of it either. It was very funny but the segments in India made me so sad. It’s like double exploitation: these women are cutting off their hair for pennies, living in abject poverty so it can be sold to Black women for outrageous sums of money because so many of us *still* have this belief that we can’t look pretty or “put together” or “professional” wearing our hair the way it grows out of our heads.

    But don’t let me be misunderstood. I also know that wearing straight hair for some really is just another look to choose from; it has nothing to do with them feeling their natural hair isn’t good enough. And natural doesn’t always mean “low or no maintenance”, I probably spend as much time twisting my hair at night as women who go to salons.

    I think I had a point here somewhere…oh, yeah: I guess it would be nice to see a documentary tackle those nuances and the social/cultural/political history of the fraught relationship Black women have with their hair. I mean, it’s not like Black people just pulled the whole “good hair” idea out of thin air, there’s a reason why “good” was associated with Eurocentric features in the first place. I knew going in Good Hair wouldn’t be that movie but I was hoping it wouldn’t gloss over as much as it did.

  5. keke October 19, 2009 at 2:13 pm Reply

    I have not seen the movie. I have not decided if I am going to see it yet. One of the issues that I have is about that lawsuit pending against him from a black woman who said that she showed Rock her film about black women and hair. She claims he stole her concept, funded his own project but used her idea. Now I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s possible.

    Also, there is the issue that I have with Rock based on his Oprah appearances. One issue, is with some of the jokes he made about black women and hair saying that he has dated black women in the past and could not touch their hair. Then whenever he dated women of other ethnic backgrounds (Asian,, white, etc) his hands were starving to touch the female scalp and their heads. Then when Oprah showed pics of her hair history, he said she looked like a slave when she showed pics of hair in an afro. This basically leads to one of my biggest complaints about Chris Rock on the topic of black women and hair….the idea that black men don’t care about our hair and that is just not true. Black men had a role to play in the way black women view themselves and their hair. Good and bad, they are implicit yet, Rock denied that during his Oprah interview.

  6. rikyrah October 19, 2009 at 4:33 pm Reply

    I found it painful.

    two parts that made me beyond sad..

    watching BABIES, and since they were under the age of 7, I consider them Babies, GETTING PERMS.

    I felt like screaming

    STOP THE VIOLENCE.
    STOP THE HATRED.

    how the hell do you put a perm on a child that young?

    the other section that just made me mad was the one with the group of young women, from a very good high school in CA, and the group of them unloading on the one young Sista rocking her natural. That it didn’t matter what was on her resume, or how she came dressed to the interview, that THEY wouldn’t take her seriously BECAUSE OF HER HAIR.

    WHAT THE F— KIND OF SELF-HATRED IS THAT S–T.

    That Rock let it stand there unchallenged just made me mad as hell at him.

    I’ve been natural for 5 years – nothing political, it was about an exercise routine.

    but, there was a whole lotta self-hatred and justification of self-hatred going on in that documentary.

    plus, the thought of all those Black women making everybody rich, but Black folks pissed me off too.

  7. Ron October 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm Reply

    I don’t know that you can expect much from him. He’s a comedian, not an investigative journalist. I was a bit troubled by the idea of the flick when he first mentioned he was doing it because I knew that it would just end up being fluff meant for the popcorn-munching public.

    But given how political he is in his standup, you would expect him to take a stand and like you all said…he probably took a safer route so not to offend anyone.

  8. vanessa October 20, 2009 at 10:39 am Reply

    You know, I wasn’t filled with rage watching “Good Hair.” I did come away with the thought that he did not speak to women like myself — natural for over 10 years, for no political reason, just a choice. I often go to those same stores and buy hair to braid my hair into fake dreads (which I have right now).

    Chris Rock is a comedian, not a cultural critic, nor an investigative journalist (we’d expect depth from the likes of Oprah). “Good Hair” has raised the issue that has been their all along, it has started the discussion, although somewhat lightly. Sometimes you have to dumb down the message to reach a certain audience. I mean, a relaxer in a baby’s hair of 3-yrs-old is absolutely horrifying. The scene with the teenagers ripping the natural haired girl was a horrible as well – and I hope the effects of that conversation weren’t damaging to that girl. The self-loathing could have been addressed much more.

    Two things he said which struck me in the docu-comedy was something about the “relaxer is not only to relax your hair, but to relax white people.” And “What’s inside your head is far more important that what’s on top.”

    • G.D. October 25, 2009 at 9:38 pm Reply

      Chris Rock is a comedian, not a cultural critic, nor an investigative journalist (we’d expect depth from the likes of Oprah). “Good Hair” has raised the issue that has been their all along, it has started the discussion, although somewhat lightly. Sometimes you have to dumb down the message to reach a certain audience.

      Oprah is deep now?

      And what discussion has “Good Hair” started, exactly? What message, if any, did this movie convey?

      • Vanessa October 25, 2009 at 10:05 pm Reply

        Haha.. Oprah would have delved a lot further on issue of self-hate and assimilation — where it is all rooted (she has the support team to do it, and we would expect nothing less from her). The discuss has begun. We’re doing it now – positive and negative. I don’t think it was his intention to make a conclusion but to bring a “situation” to the surface and for people do what they want with it. The structure was true to Chris Rock’s whole comedic stance – of raising the issue, showing the ridiculous in it, and people laughing about it. If a person chooses to do something about it, the choice is theirs. The message to me, was like a don’t do drugs, because it’s not good for you commercial.

  9. Lori October 20, 2009 at 10:48 pm Reply

    I agree with a lot of what KeKe said. I typically enjoy Rock’s humor, but after watching him promote the movie on Oprah, I knew I’d probably wait until it came out on dvd or cable. He really did contradict himself when he said Black men didn’t care about hair, but then turned around and made a big deal about the hair of the non-Black women he’d dated. Over the past couple of months, I’ve done a number of interviews (on my blog) with women who sport natural hair styles and the people who seem to give them the hardest time about their hair are the men in their lives (specifically husbands) and their own mothers.

    Over and beyond Rock’s obvious contradiction, his singling out Black women and holding up our hair choices/issues for ridicule just didn’t sit well with me. When it comes to hair in our community, I think there’s enough ridicule to go around–can anybody say Al Sharpton? Jermaine Jackson? Don King? Kat Williams? What about all the brothers with the do-rags? I mean, come on . . .

    I doubt the young lady who is suing Rock will get anywhere, but having viewed a clip from her film, it looked like she had the better movie or at least a more interesting and well-balanced perspective.

  10. Vicky October 21, 2009 at 7:02 pm Reply

    One thing that struck me when I first saw the trailer for this documentary was how similar it was to one done by the BBC and Jamelia (UK Pop star) on hair extensions in 2008. In the documentary Jamelia sought to find out where her hair extensions came from which resulted in her visiting Russia and India to investigate women who sell/sacrifice their hair. I’ve attached the youtube trailer below for your information

  11. A'Lelia Bundles October 25, 2009 at 9:26 pm Reply

    I happened to see the questions Melissa and Danielle posed about my inclusion in “Good Hair.” I enjoyed doing the interview with Chris Rock–and we talked a lot about the history of the hair care industry and Madam Walker–but, like you, I’m not sure why the I was only identified as “author” rather than “hair historian” or “Madam C. J. Walker biographer/great-great-granddaughter.” That’s a question for the producers and editors to answer. On a humorous note, I’m glad I didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. And on a more serious note, I hope the movie will make at least a few folks think about how and where they spend their money.
    A’Lelia Bundles
    Washington, DC

  12. […] PostBourgie Blog (10-19-09) […]

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