Good Hair: About Us but not For Us

Curator's Note

Documentary films are often powerful in doing what typical mainstream media outfits can’t: accidentally reveal truths.  There’s a moment in comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair when a group of young black women discuss the realities of having straightened hair in order to secure work.  When her friends express their concern for her, the lone woman with naturally styled hair has a look on her face that says more about the underlying tensions of black women and hair than do any other moment of the film.  But before the viewer can fully engage in the moment, there’s a cut.


The filmic cut is emblematic of a truth evident in both the form and content of Good Hair:  a practice of simultaneously exploiting and promoting black women all for a bottom line—be it in the male-dominated black female hair care industry or in a mainstream film about black women that doesn’t have women of any race in principal production roles.


At the root of the colorful, fast-paced filmic spectacle that is Good Hair belies a $9 billion dollar global industry in which men, whether they are in the U.S. or Asia, control production, distribution, and ultimately are the major profiteers of black female hair products.  Female workers in Asia comb through the hair, Asian female clerks in the U.S. sell it, and (reportedly) black women pay upwards of $1,000 for hair weave.  So when black (male) business owners complain about Asian merchants impeding their “right” to control the industry, one wonders if it matters who’s in control when all scenarios leave black women as the economically exploited. 


How does this relate to the production choices in Good Hair?  Consider an indie film about the same topic--In Our Heads About Our Hair,  a lower budget, work in progress doc from first time filmmaker Anu Prestonia. Within a few minutes of In Our Heads, black female scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin offers a succinct historical context to black women and hair care.  Griffin even says the R-word: racism.  (Rock has Al Sharpton and Paul Mooney offer up snappier analyses) While Rock relies on a white male scientist to explain the health impact of sodium hydroxide-laden hair perms, Anu actually finds a black woman, environmental activist Majora Carter to discuss the impact of those compounds on the earth. 


You’d need an entirely separate essay to review the misogyny inherent in the level of airtime afforded to the many men in the film (rapper Ice-T being the most prominent) who joke about the multiple costs of love and sex with women who straighten or weave in their hair.  In Our Heads provides a rich example of the black female subjectivity that should rightfully be central in a film about black women and hair.  And it’s not coincidental that Prestonia worked with a largely female film crew.


Any successes that Good Hair may boast must be underscored by the fact that currently, a famous black male comedian will have a decidedly easier time making a film about black women than likely any black woman will, famous or not (okay, Oprah could do it).  The question is, though, can he make it funny and non-exploitative? After seeing Good Hair, the answer is Not yet.


I won’t deny Rock’s comedic brilliance—you will laugh often.  Nor will I disregard his motives—he starts the film as an ode of sorts to his two daughters. Perhaps Good Hair's popularity (assumed due to a fairly rigorous promotional campaign) will open the door for films like In Our Heads.  Until then, the film remains a sobering example of how a film about black women is not actually for us.



Tokumbo –

 Very nice piece. I am glad you brought up the idea of absence and black women in US culture. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I have heard similar comments from black women about the film: that too much about black women is left to be explained by black men. You make an important point about the feasibility of the film industry to make a film that escapes exploiting and making fun of black women at their expense. Rock, known for cutting, sharp, intelligent commentary on relationships and society, speaks from a (black) man’s point of view. 
There is a major question of audience, here, that you comment on and has been evident in the way Good Hair has been marketed. Given the amount of background black women have to give to explain motives for straightening (or waiting until after the HR paperwork has gone through to braid their hair), it would seem that this movie is meant to be a primer for the uninitiated and Rock is meant to be their go-through. Rock is a man just as perplexed by weave, weave lay-a-way, and/or really expensive human hair, as anybody who hasn’t ever had meaningful contact with a black woman who wears “extra” hair, but he’s still able to speak with some authority on the topic given his ethnic background.  
The upside of this film is that people are actually talking seriously – at work, at the bus stop, in all manner of places – about the work that goes into having straight hair for many black women and why black women do it. In order to get more people to understand the work, time and politics that goes into a black woman’s hair on a national scale, do we have to cede some major ground? How much do the film’s negatives outweigh the positives, if at all? 

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