Like every American girl, I had a hard time coming to terms with my hair. It’s profoundly straight. Couldn’t be any straighter. It laughs at a flattening iron as if to say, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” It didn’t help my self-esteem that my mother spent the first 12 years of my life trying to make my hair into something it wasn’t. I became very familiar with curling and crimping irons, hot rollers and overnight curlers. There were even a few perms in there. The thing is I probably wouldn’t have thought anything was wrong with my hair if my mother hadn’t been so adamant about trying to make it look “nice.”
It doesn’t appear that there has been any improvement in hair confidence for little girls. If anything, it’s gotten worse. When Chris Rock’s three-year-old daughter asked him “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” he was gobsmacked. How do you answer that question when the concept of “good hair” is so nebulous? Why isn’t the hair that nature gave you good enough? In the documentary, “Good Hair,” Rock enters the profoundly lucrative world of hair care in an attempt to answer his daughter’s loaded, near-heartbreaking question.
Rock narrows down the quest by honing in on the African-American hair world. What he finds is astounding. From conventions and styling competitions to the black market of weaves, there is big money (and celebrity) in hair care. He follows the four finalists in the Bronner Brothers Hair Show, as they prepare for their sensational circus-like performances cutting hair live on stage. He also traces the two most profitable products in African-American beautification back to their roots: Relaxer and weaves.
The key ingredient to Relaxer is sodium hydroxide, a highly toxic chemical that, when inhaled over long periods of time, causes permanent lung damage. You should see what the concentrated form does to a chicken breast and a soda can. Yet both men and women use it to straighten their hair. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. That’s why they call it “The Creamy Crack.”
Though it doesn’t have a street name, the weave is the biggest business of all. Women will pay upwards of $1000 to sew someone else’s hair onto their heads. They’ll forgo the rent so they can meet societal standards of beauty. The beauty industry isn’t the only one profiting from it either. Human hair is India’s largest export, garnered from a common sacrificial ritual in the Hindu church.
In addition to the socio-economic impact, “Good Hair” also explores how hair care affects the African-American community in confidence (both personal and race-related), romantic relationships and every day life. Celebrities like Ice-T, Salt n’ Peppa, Maya Angelou and Rev. Al Sharpton hilariously weigh in on this complex and clandestine business.
And you need the jokes because without them, the whole thing is kind of a tragedy. Maya Angelou points out that, “Hair is a woman’s glory. You share it with your family. You breed it.” But very few seem to abide by that philosophy. Chris Rock interviews a group of high school girls, most of whom have weaves, who explain that a woman just won’t be taken seriously in a job interview if they walk in with an afro. A little girl, who admits she hates having her hair relaxed, says that she thinks everyone should still go through with it because “you’re supposed to.” It’s not just women that feel the pressure. Ice-T and, more famously, Al Sharpton both succumbed to the Creamy Crack.
Though the film focuses on African-American hair, the theme is universal. While African-American women pay thousands of dollars to make their hair straighter and lighter, us crackers (or at least our mothers) are trying to make our hair curlier and bouncier. The hair is always prettier on the other side. I did finally embrace my straight hair and found a natural style that works for me. But that doesn’t mean I’m a free spirit. Just ask my box of hair dye.