'Good Hair'

A rigorous inquiry that gets at universal but rarely discussed truths about black femininity.

Proving that no subject is too thin to yield a good documentary, “Good Hair” is a raucous and rigorous inquiry into the subject of African-American hair — the stigmas, the secrets, the shocking price of maintenance — that gets at universal but rarely discussed truths about black femininity. Chris Rock is in typically sharp but unusually sensitive form in this fresh, funny and altogether fascinating HBO project, which could prove a mildly provocative crowd-pleaser in theatrical release. Black audiences will wig out, but pic should also gel with viewers who have never even heard of a relaxer.

Rock set out to make the film in response to a question from one of his two young daughters — “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” — only to find that she’s hardly the first one to pose the question. Working with comedian and first-time director Jeff Stilson (a scribe and co-producer on HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show”), Rock interviews multiple subjects in an attempt to get to the root of the matter: the burden of being born with hair that, in its natural state, is considered “nappy” and unattractive by society at large.

Celebrities ranging from actresses Nia Long, Tracie Thoms and Raven Symone to writer Maya Angelou speak with remarkable candor about their hair and their willingness (or unwillingness) to conform to American standards of beauty. For legions of women, the use of a relaxer — a thick lotion that straightens the natural curls — is a major rite of passage, but also a potentially harmful one, a chemist explains, as relaxers contain a fair amount of scalp-burning, follicle-damaging sodium hydroxide.

Less dangerous but much more expensive is the weave — the braiding of extensions into one’s hair — which can cost as much as $1,000. This fact provokes Rock to query his distaff subjects on all kinds of delicate hair-related issues: the degree to which a black woman views her hair as a major investment; her expectations that her significant other will fund her hair care; her sensitivity about having her hair touched, even as a sign of intimacy. Some of the answers are surprising, even revelatory.

It’s telling that, with the exception of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who proudly flaunts his perm, Rock’s subjects acknowledge that hair vanity is an almost exclusively female attribute. But to the comedian’s credit, he doesn’t let the guys off the hook, either, and an uproarious series of interviews with black male patrons at a barbershop brings the docu’s battle-of-the-sexes subtext to the fore. There’s something of a barbershop quality to “Good Hair,” in the way Rock creates a lively public forum for people to riff with delightful frankness on subjects that seem more taboo than they should be.

Who knew hair could be such an inexhaustibly fertile topic? Rock visits the Atlanta-based Dudley family’s hair-products empire, one of the foundations of the $9 billion black-hair-care industry. He jets to India, where Hindu women shave their heads as a form of sacrifice, only to have their shorn locks shipped overseas and turned into extensions for weave-hungry women.

He also spends a lot of time at the Bronner Bros. Intl. Hair Show, an annual hair-care convention in Atlanta. These segments, which bookend the pic, are a bit overextended, but an outrageous contest, pitting four leading stylists of black hair against each other, must be seen to be believed.

Good Hair

Production

An HBO Films presentation of a Zahrlo production, an Urban Romances production. Produced by Chris Rock, Kevin O’Donnell, Jenny Hunter. Executive producer, Nelson George. Directed by Jeff Stilson. Written by Chris Rock, Stilson, Lance Crouther, Chuck Sklar.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Cliff Charles; editors, Paul Marchand, Greg Nash; music, Marcus Miller; music supervisor, P.J. Bloom; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael Haines, Brett Lofthus, Michael Prichard, Adam Jones, Don McCampbell, Desiree Ortiz, Brandt Clark, Glen Kantziper, Subramanian, James Machowski, Dave McJunkin; associate producer, Doug Miller. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2009. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Warren Berry, Eric Bias, Sheila Bridges, Marvet Britto, A’Lelia Bundles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Elgin Charles, Rhonda Cowan, Joe Dudley, Eunice Dudley, Eve, Veronica Forbes, Melyssa Ford, Meagan Good, Vijay Madupali Gupta, Andre Harrell, Ice-T, Sarah Jones, Scott Julion, KRS-One, Lauren London, Nia Long, Melanye MacLin-Carroll, Jailyn Minor, Paul Mooney, Willie Morrow, Valerie Price, Salli Richardson, Salt-n-Pepa, Al Sharpton, Raven Symone, Tracie Thoms, T-Pain.

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