Detroit’s African-American hairstylists show off their particular verve in “Hot Irons,” a quick documentary that, while not deep, is fun eye candy. Filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s busy style and camera angles make evident his prior incarnations as fashion-house stylist, album cover designer and musicvideo director. As diversionary, harmless docu-fluff, pic could find a home on HBO or BET, at midnight screenings or at festivals.
Detroit calls itself “the hair capital of the world,” but it is also known for grinding poverty. Dosunmu contrasts productive black hair salons with empty homes and boarded-up storefronts surrounding them. Since none of the hairstylists interviewed have on-camera identification, they remain strangers throughout. That, in combo with stark B&W ghetto shots, unintentionally brands this community as alien and otherworldly. And it’s easy to chuckle at these anonymous women’s huge, unwieldy hair designs — but the audience is laughing at, not with, them.
Few of the stylists’ customers say anything, content to sit and stare blankly like sketch models. Among a trio of big-haired black women, one says she chose hairstyling because a beauty academy could teach her skills to “make real money” instead of flipping burgers.
The film chronicles black hair-care events including Hair Wars, in which Detroit stylists compete for the most outlandish designs. The event looks both sad — one woman’s face strains as she tries to balance a towering, weighty work — and empowering, as stylists and their models take their bows on Milan-like runways. Here, “Hot Irons” parallels the tragedy and sensuousness of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 drag queen film, “Paris Is Burning.”
Dosunmu shows but does not ask why hair gives purpose to otherwise bleak Motown living. Though helmer infuses his Nigerian heritage into the question of what hair means to African-Americans, the story aches for greater context and info. Tech credits are standard, although the film speed is uneven at times. Musical backdropping ranges from opera to Johnny Cash.