Today in film history, October 9, 2009, Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair", opened in US theaters. The well-reviewed movie (95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) would go on to gross just $4.1 million at the box office, which isn't a lot, but the film didn't cost much either.
I skipped on "Good Hair" when it was in the theaters in 2009, after reading and hearing from folks I trusted about how empty, though funny, it was. At the time of its release, there seemed to be plenty of mainstream media focus on "blackness". It was the year that CNN debuted its "Black In America" series, and also there was a lot of attention being given to the plight of the single professional black woman in America, and in the midst of all of that, there was the never-ending black hair debate.
So I really wasn't in the mood for anything that handled any of our (black people) issues trivially. It just didn't feel like the right time. But maybe it was just me. So I'll leave it at that.
As the years passed, I forgot all about the film until recently, when I watched it for the very first time as a DVD rental. I have a 10-year-old daughter, and a conversation I had with my wife about our daughter's hair reminded me of the film, so I finally picked it up and watched it.
The film begins with a question; a question Chris Rock's own 7-year old daughter, Lola, asks him; a question that was the basis and motivation for the creation of the documentary. And that question was: "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"
With that set-up, one would expect that, by the end of the documentary, an answer (or answers) will be provided to the question, in all its breadth and complexity.
Does that happen?
Well, about an hour into the 95-minute film, after lots of clowning around on what's really a serious issue, Rock finally seems to answer the question by stating that he tells his daughters to prize what's inside of their heads more than what's on it. An assuring answer, I suppose - the old, "it's what's on the inside that counts" line that I'm sure we've all heard at one time or another.
However, as I've learned as a father, it's just not that simple. Try explaining that to a little girl who ventures out daily, into a world that relentlessly tells her the opposite. It's a daily commitment that my wife and I have made - to make sure that we provide our daughter with as much of our values to counter the attack (because that's really the best way to described it) she faces in what she sees and hears on the outside.
Rock should be aware that what's inside of their heads is indeed very much influenced by what's on it; in other words, what they feel about themselves is partly dictated by how their physical selves are received by the world in which they live - a world that's so woefully consumed with what's on the surface, as women (more often than not) subject themselves to, sometimes, deadly procedures in order to fit some standard of beauty - one that's primarily determined by white men, based predominantly on an Eurocentric model.
Let's face it, as we all know, "black hair" is a rather broad and loaded topic, chock-full of historical and present-day complications that simply can't be addressed in a 95-minute documentary - especially one that tackles the matter so jovially and casually.
"Good Hair" does occasionally attempt to delve into some of the weightier aspects of the subject, with "attempt" being the operative word in that sentence. However, every developing moment of discomfort, difficulty and revelation in the film is quickly de-thorned with a joke of some kind, courtesy of Chris Rock. There's almost always a punchline, or smart-aleck remark, to keep affairs blithely moving ahead, onto the next set-piece, all building up to a rather trivial competitive showdown at the Bronner Bros International Hair Show, which, in my opinion, added very little to the film's original premise.
Actually, thinking back on it, I'd say that the hair show that ends the movie, and all the build-up leading to it, really was the film's focus, and not an investigation into the culture of hair - "black hair" specifically. In fact, I'd go out on a limb and say that about half the movie - maybe even more of its 95-minute running time - is dedicated to the Bronner Bros Hair Show and its 4 main competitors.
So what was the point of it all then?
As I type this, I don't know whether it's even worth it to bother discussing the film with any degree of sincerity and earnestness, because it's clear that the production team weren't very much interested in getting to the root of the matter at hand. It's purely entertainment, and not much more. So, you can either simply just accept it for what it is, and watch it not necessarily feeling like you've reached some new level of enlightenment; or you can get all riled up and lament the absence of any real substance in it, and what is, in effect, a wasted opportunity.
With a shrug, I suggest the former. You'll lose less hair that way, since you won't be pulling it out in frustration.
It received a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which puzzles me. I give "Good Hair" 2 out of 5 stars.
Malcolm Woodard is an artist living and working in the great city of New York.