Good Hair (2009) D: Jeff Stilson

Good Hair (2009) D: Jeff Stilson

Good Hair

There exists among some sectors of the African American community a belief in a concept known as ‘good hair’. According to the belief, straight (less African) hair is ‘good’ while kinked, or ‘nappy’ hair is ‘bad’. In Spike Lee’s satirical School Daze, characters opine and even sing the merits of straight and curly hair respectively.

In 2005, a film maker by the name of Regina Kimbell made a documentary on the topic, and the politics and issues surrounding it called My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage. In 2009, director Jeff Stilson made a documentary about the same thing, called Good Hair. He had wildly popular comedian Chris Rock narrate it. Kimbell filed a law suit for US$5M and an injunction against Stilson on the grounds that the latter infringed her copyright. The injunction was not upheld and Stilson’s documentary was released on schedule. The lawsuit has not yet been heard.

With Chris Rock very much up front and the whole concept tied to his own daughter’s lament, Good Hair looks at the various ways in which African American women (and some men), set about changing their natural hair. Any viewer who has seen Spike Lee’s criminally underrated Malcolm X, will have come across the use of chemical hair product. In that film, we see Malcolm in a great deal of pain with a head full of goo trying to flatten out the curls. What we learn from Good Hair is that the methods go a whole lot deeper than that.

Astoundingly, for many, there is an entire industry of products such as Relaxer, so-called because it relaxes the ‘wound-up’ kink of your hair, and salons charging ridiculous amounts of money for extensions. Even more incredible is the origin of the extensions that are weaved into African American hair – bought cheap from third-world countries such as India. Through interviews with ordinary people as well as icons such as Maya Angelou and Ice-T, Stilson’s documentary lays bare a seemingly hidden but largely widespread part of African American culture. It is an almost shocking revelation.

That is where Good Hair begins to break down. The film knocks the naive viewer off their feet with the secrets of a culture, and in doing so raises untold questions about why it all exists – questions of racism, self-esteem, third-world exploitation and dangerous health and safety issues. It then leaves these questions alone while narrator Chris Rock stays at an ironic and playful distance from the subject. A light-hearted jaunt through the beauty parlors and barbershops of Uptown just seems a tad superficial with such lofty questions in the air.

Good Hair is certainly an enjoyable film. It’s an intriguing look at, for most of us, a strange and unknown phenomenon. Chris Rock is on song for the comedy in the piece and he does display concern at times for the questions raised. There is still much to be learned from the film – be prepared to find out a good deal more than you probably know about African American culture. The insubstantial content of much of Good Hair though is irksome and you almost wish there was going to be a sequel.

An enjoyable, superficial look at the secrets of African hair. 3.5 stars

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~ by mfnm on August 4, 2010.

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