What does it mean to have ‘Good Hair’?

What does it mean to have “good hair”? This is the question Chris Rock looked to answer when one of his daughters asked him, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” Perplexed as to where she got this idea, Rock set about examining socially held ideals of African-American beauty, particularly the lengths to which women will go to achieve “good hair”. Directed by Jeff Stilson with Rock as our guide, Good Hair examines social attitudes and norms surrounding “good hair”, as well as the money behind the hair business.

Chris Rock is best known as a comedian. He is not someone you would expect to take on a serious subject, particularly one that focuses on women, and the societal expectation to conform their hair to a certain set of standards. He pulls the film off in part due to his status as a funnyman, and his good-natured ability to open people up. The film compiles several interviews, relying mainly on personal stories to make its points. I would have preferred a few more hard facts, but what it is lacking in researched information, it makes up for in its playful spirit.

Good Hair kicks off with a brief examination of what the culturally upheld definition of “good hair” actually is. Rock asks various celebrities and ordinary people their take on the term. General consensus is that “Good hair” = straight, relaxed hair, reminiscent of European or Asian styles that is considered prettier and better than natural African hair. Women and men undergo a number of treatments; such as applying hair relaxers or getting weaves in order to achieve this desired look.

Rock reminisces about seeing commercials for relaxers whilst watching television, though he has evidently never tried them himself. Relaxers are a commonly used product and are being used on younger and younger children. One hairdresser Rock interviews notes that the youngest child she has applied relaxer to was not yet two. There are many concerns surrounding the product, the main ingredient of which is sodium hydroxide. This chemical is a corrosive agent that can produce chemical burns and destroy hair follicles.

The film also examines the business side of “good hair”. With the average weave costing from $1000-$1300 it’s no wonder that the black hair industry is worth 9 billion dollars. The focus of the film is on the Bronner Brothers Hair Show, an event that pumps 60 million into Atlanta, Georgia’s economy. We revisit the event periodically as the film moves on. Although it is certainly interesting, and an entirely alien idea to me (particularly the competitive Hair Battle Royale that wraps the show), it feels like a strange narrative hiccup. Clearly the hair show is highlighted to display the importance of hair in black culture, yet these segments feel like a narrative divergence, particularly when Rock is interviewing and trailing the hair stylist competing in the Battle Royale. In my opinion this is the weakest area of the film. These sequences are not nearly as entertaining or informative as when Rock is chatting it up celebrities during interviews or regular men and women in salons.

I have to hand it to Rock for deciding to make this. The key thing that makes this documentary work is his ability to connect with people and get them discussing issues around beauty in black culture. Good Hair may be light viewing compared to most documentaries, however, it’s still worth a look.