Hair Apparent

Hair Apparent for urban faithChris Rock’s new documentary probes the world of black hair to humorous effect, but also forces us to confront disturbing questions about our prescribed standards of beauty.

One of the big conversations in my household this year has revolved around the question of whether my 9-year-old daughter is ready to get her hair “permed.” Some girls at her school have already been initiated into the world of relaxed hair, so the peer pressure is in effect.

On the one hand my wife, who spends an inordinate amount of time combing and styling our little girl’s hair each week, would love to reduce the strain and pain (on both her and my daughter) of braiding and curling and ponytailing. On the other hand, she’s not yet ready to subject our daughter to the extreme measures involved in chemically straightening black hair. Who would’ve imagined that there’s so much drama involved in styling a little girl’s tresses?

Well, Chris Rock did.

Rock’s new documentary, Good Hair (PG-13), opens Friday in limited release and nationwide on Oct. 23, but it’s already got lots of folks buzzing about this most sacred of topics in the black community.

Critics have praised Rock’s mixture of satire, history, and social commentary. And his funny but insightful look at the $9 billion black hair industry covers a lot of territory. Indeed, there are few things more central to the daily experience of a black woman. A good-looking ‘do plays a pivotal role in both her personal and professional happiness.

Yet an ominous theme undergirds the entire enterprise. Why do so many women spend so much time and so much money trying to attain what’s essentially a “white” look? That question is at the heart of Good Hair, and with Rock as our irreverent yet sympathetic tour guide, the film sets out to get some answers.

By roaming the exhibit floor of the massive Bronner Bros. Hair Show and talking to everyone from Maya Angelou to Raven Symoné, Rock presents a subculture that is at once familiar but nonetheless foreign. How is it, again, that some women are willing to pay thousands of dollars for weaves (some actually putting their hair on layaway) to create the illusion of long tresses? Or how is it that so many are willing to apply harsh sodium hydroxide creams to their heads to straighten kinky hair? (Rock demonstrates how the chemical can literally eat through chicken flesh and disintegrate aluminum cans.)

What Rock discovers in his cinematic expedition is a gold mine of endless humor (Al Sharpton even gets some screen time — need I say more?). But it’s also a source of great poignancy. That lingering issue of who determines the standard of true beauty pervades the movie like a stubborn ghost, haunting every corner of a black woman’s existence. Even our churches — or, perhaps, especially our churches — are full of lofty hairdo expectations for black women.

Still, in Good Hair, Rock is able to take all these contradictions and discomfitting realities and allow us to laugh at them — and at ourselves. He also may have inadvertently helped settle that little dilemma in my household: If I have any say in the matter, my 9-year-old will have to wait until she’s voting age before getting that soda-can-eating paste applied to her head.

Related Article: Afro America.

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attactions

About the author, Edward Gilbreath

Edward Gilbreath is editor of and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity.
  1. I cannot wait to see this movie. And as an African-American woman with a relaxer, I say to you, Ed, wait on the relaxer for your daughter. Although I like the benefits of relaxed hair, I do believe it takes its toll on one’s hair, so why rush it?

  2. Thanks for your post, Ed.
    I’m not a Chris Rock fan but when I first heard about this (on NPR, can you believe it), I felt hopeful. I know his in-your-mama’s-face style. And I’m hopeful that in the movie he also reveals the toll processed your hair takes on our individual and collective black soul.
    It’s been 14 years since I ‘relaxed’ my hair, and I’ve never been so at peace with myself. I now know I have good hair, down to every last nappy root.
    So many black women have approached me, confessing their fear of going natural. The biggest fear is not being accepted by other blacks. That saddens me. We haven’t come very far along at all with the self-love thing, have we?

  3. Oprah did a show on this and Solange Knowles said she used to spend $40-50K a year on maintaining her hair, before she decided to make it short and natural. Wonder how much Beyonce spends on her hair?? I am going to see the movie this weekend. Hair care should not be the cost of a year’s salary!

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