Monday, October 26, 2009

Good Hair? Not So Good.


A couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend, who is the Treasurer of Clark University's Black Student Union (BSU) asked me if I wanted to join him and the club to go see Good Hair. I don't know if many of you have heard about this documentary, but to make a long story short and not make the whole rest of the post pointless, it is a film by Chris Rock about hair in the Black community and what makes it "good" or "bad." So BSU arranged to reduce the cost of tickets and arranged for a total of 28 people to get on a bus and be driven 45 minutes to Rhode Island to see the film. Most of us-- including Luke-- found out about the length of the bus drive when we got on the bus. We vehemently hoped that "Good Hair" was going to be the most amazing movie in the history of movies.

Chris, oh Chris, oh Chris. You are not a documentary filmmaker. No one would normally be asking you to be. But, you see, Chris, when you endeavor to make a documentary, then people are asking you to be documentary filmmaker. Which-- can I remind you?-- you're not. Very not.

The film opened with Chris Rock saying that one day, his very young daughter came home from school asking "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" His daughter (who was perhaps 4 at the time? I don't remember, so don't quote me on that) has "natural" hair. The rest of the film was set up to be an exploration of how Black people style their hair and what makes "good hair."

Rock takes us to the Bronner Brothers hair show in Atlanta, where the best hairdressers in the country sell their wares and show their skills on the stage. It is one of the largest hair events around, and Black men and women flock to the show to buy new products, see demonstrations, and watch hair shows.

Rock takes us to the Dudley Hair Care & Cosmetics, one of the only Black-owned hair care companies around nowadays. Their big product? Relaxers. Rock spends a good portion of the movie talking about relaxers and interviewing stars who use them/have used them (the panel he uses throughout the movie includes Nia Long, Raven Symone, Al Sharpton, T-Pain, Maya Angelou, and Melyssa Ford, to name only a few). Some everyday people he interviews refer to relaxer as "creamy crack"-- and perhaps it's just as dangerous; just ask the Coke cans a scientist dissolves in the main ingredient! After seeing that, you may feel a little shocked that mothers bring daughters as young as two or three to get the treatment done.

We're also informed about weaves. Hairdressers go on and on about how women pay thousands of dollars to buy weaves, which then require ongoing upkeep. Rock interviews down-trodden-looking men about their women's weaves, which they are often asked to "subsidize." Several Black men insist that weaves are just one of the things that makes dating White women easier, more enjoyable, and less costly. Rock asks the women on the panel what kind of weaves they have, and when many answer "human," he inquires as to what kind of human. Overwhelmingly the response is "Indian." Rock ventures off to India, where he learns that though much of the weave hair that we get in America comes from the hair shorn from women at tonsore ceremonies, there is also a black market for hair: women sometimes have their hair secretively cut off while they sleep or while they are at a movie theatre, all so someone can turn a profit.

And this, unfortunately, is where Rock's journey figuratively ends. He explores weaves and relaxers and not much else, other than in one scene I am still seething over.

Rock meets with several high school girls to ask them about what they think "good hair" is. All the girls but one (who has, in my opinion, a lovely afro) have hair that is relaxed, straightened, or has a weave in it. One girl looks at the girl with the afro and says that her afro is "cute" but she would never hire her if she walked into her business. Another girl seconds this opinion, stressing how unprofessional natural Black hair looks. The girl with the afro is silent. She looks upset. She is not given a platform to speak. I was absolutely astounded that Rock left this moment rest. It would have been an excellent segue into a discussion on "natural" hair styles, but he doesn't touch the topic. I was enraged.

So this is one of the many things that has me shaking my finger at Rock's documentary. I liked that, by the end, we aren't left with a strong feeling that "good hair" is either natural or treated, as Rock both celebrated and criticized weaves and relaxers. However, we can't really know because natural hair-- and by this I mostly mean variations on afros or dredlocks, or just generally leaving your hair kinky/how it sprouts from your head-- is never really addressed. There is one woman on the panel who has natural hair (she may be biracial, but I'm not sure), and the girl who gets singled out by her classmates. Neither get much airtime. Does this mean natural hair is "bad hair?" I would have appreciated a stance that any way you do your hair is "good" if more options had been presented.

This film left a terrible taste in my mouth. I consider how it began as Rock trying to reconcile his daughter's ill feelings about her own hair. Why not celebrate natural hair? Why not put out the message that there are many beauties attributed to natural and treated hair, and that both are "good?" Why is Rock not taking this opportunity to tell his daughter she's okay-- she's beautiful-- just the way she is? That she was born with "good hair?"

Can
you be born with "good hair?"

This film has my brain running angrily in circles. It leaves so many questions on the table. I feel that this topic is so large and so serious for the Black community that it was just not suited to a two-hour film. Perhaps a mini-series would have been better: an episode on afros, an episode on relaxed hair, an episode of dredlocks, an episode on weaves, an episode on braids, etc. At least Rock would have been able to cover all the appropriate ground in that format. This doesn't mean I still don't wonder why, if he was pressed for screen time, he didn't cut down the other segments to include segments on natural hair. Or the history of Black hairstyles. Or the prejudices associated with different styles. Or how men navigate hair culture. Or anything.

Perhaps I'm so bitter because my definition (as well as Luke's) of "good hair" was left out. Luke has a pretty abundant afro. It is well-kept, and in my opinion, just as professional as anyone else's hair. I think it's gorgeous hair. I think a number of so-called-natural Black hairstyles are absolutely beautiful. Just like the hair of any other person of any other ethnicity, if it's kept healthy and clean, it looks good. It seems many people are under the impression that Black hair is just dirty and unkempt (side note: the internet is an upsetting place), which is absolutely not true, especially in the case of dredlocks. I don't know if these people have ever known a White person with dreds, but it's pretty reliably offensive to the nose. That was a bit of a tangent, but I felt a little lost when a conversation on "good hair" didn't at all include the hair styles I feel are beautiful. I felt a lot like the high school girl with the afro seemed to feel. I sat there, waiting, hoping, for someone to speak up in defense of natural hair, but it never happened.

Anyway, I have a lot to rant about with this movie, and I don't know if I'd honestly recommend you see the movie. It's a good conversation-starter (moreso if you already have an opinion, I think), but it's also seriously lacking when it comes to content. I don't know if I'd advocate handing money over to Chris Rock, who seems to have half-assed this project to the highest degree (and did I mention Bronner Brothers Show, which took up a large portion of the film, was also one of the sponsors? Hmm).

Unfortunately, I have class tonight when BSU is meeting to discuss Good Hair further. Most of the members I overheard talking about it shared my feeling that the film was extremely incomplete. Hopefully, though, it will get the members talking about their own definitions of "good hair."

Have you seen Good Hair? If so, what did you think of it? If not, reflect a bit on this post in the comments. What do you think "good hair" is?

13 comments:

♥Chymere♥ said...

WOW. I love this post. Usually I don't read long post but it was captivating. So good job on that....(from a journalism major stand point)

And about this film...I didn't wish to go see it when I saw the preview. I thought I would probably take more offense to it than anything, being that I have natural hair. I had a perm once...I was 14 but it's grown out since then. The movie didn't send out a message that natural is beautiful, a message not much conveyed in the society we live in. After reading this, I knew it wasn't in my precise sentiments to want to see this film...maybe it was Spike Lee, or Michael Eric Dyson Perhaps. But Chris Rock is a joke to me. Can't take him seriously.

But thanx for that. very well written.

amanda said...

I cannot WAIT to see this movie. I have a standing date to see it with two older women from New York -- one White, one Black. No doubt our post-film conversation will be as interesting as the film.

I haven't seen the movie, so I can't really comment, but I think that there are so many political, economic, and CULTURAL overtones to "good" Black hair that Rock, as a comedian and not a journalist, could never hope to address all of them.

I would like to make a few thought-provoking points, however: the lye relaxer that dissolved a can of coke is no longer in regular use (because it dissolves metals, holy hellcats). It's a nice bit of show, but it's not comparable to mainstream relaxers. This is not to say that the creamy crack doesn't burn -- it does if left on too long -- but it's not on par with battery acid, either.

I don't know how many women know this, but "relaxer" and "permanent" are the same thing, just used in different ways. Black women have their hair straightened (relaxer) and White women have their hair curled (permanent) using largely the same no-lye alkali base product.
This is important to know since, as Roger Ebert pointed out, no society has totally natural hair. Everyone has a different take on what makes hair "good" and how to make it that way. Some relax their hair, some curl it, some just take a damn comb to it in the morning, but everyone does some sort of cosmetic tweaking to their locks to make the follicles sprouting from their scalp socially acceptable. It is the social biases and norms that determine that acceptability, however, that are (or should be, I can't say for sure, since I haven't seen the film) under attack in a film like "Good Hair" -- not the styles produced themselves.

amanda said...

Holy crap, I wrote a lot for not having seen the movie yet.

Sorry! *sheepish smile*

Vanessa said...

Chymere: Thanks a lot! I'm glad you liked the post. I really do agree with you about how the movie doesn't send out a message about natural being beautiful. I think it's a shame they didn't look at both sides of the coin. I'm glad you commented, especially since you have chosen both to relax your hair and to leave it natural.

Amanda: I hope you find the movie as thought-provoking as I did, even if it got me a little riled up. I didn't know that lye/sodium hydroxide isn't a mainstream relaxer nowadays-- I've never had my hair relaxed and I don't know anyone who has, so I assumed the movie was talking about a practice that's still relatively common. I also like your comment about no hair being natural, because the whole time I was writing this out, I was conflicted over the term "natural." I suppose none of us have "natural" hair if we use a hair product of any kind, but it was the closest word to what I think I meant. Also, I think this film would have been a lot better in the hands of someone willing to talk about the political, economic, and cultural aspects of hair-- it would have made the movie so much deeper.

Okay, my RESPONSE was really long, so don't feel bad. :)

saturdayjane said...

Haven't seen the film yet, although it sounds like a good topic for discussion!

I just wanted to shout out there that I have stick straight hair, and I have always, ALWAYS wanted a big mop of thick curls. Nobody ever wants what they're born with, I guess.

Aron Ranen said...

Please take a moment to check out my documentary film BLACK HAIR

It is free at youtube. 6 parts including an update from London, England.

It explores the Korean Take-over of the Black Beauty Supply and Hair biz..

The current situation makes it hard to believe that Madame C.J. Walker once ran the whole thing.

I am not a hater, I am a motivator.

Plus I am a White guy who stumbled upon this, and felt it was so wrong I had to make a film about it.

self-funded film, made from the heart.

Can it be taken back?

Link
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p96aaTSdrAE

Kelly said...

OK, first of all your guy's hair is FANTASTIC. I love that kind of 'do.

I haven't seen the movie but I really want to. It's unsatisfying to hear that Rock doesn't cover natural hair much, just the opposite, but I have to say that as a white woman who has never really been privy to a whole lot of conversations about black hair, I am insanely curious. The city where I grew up is super white, so it wasn't until college that I even really had an opportunity to be friends with any african american people. And even then, they kind of mentioned it now and then but since I never roomed with any of them, I wasn't really witness to the whole process and it hasn't been until the past couple years that I've really realized how big of an ordeal it can be.

Elaine said...

WOW. That is all I gotta say. If he's going to be talking about black hair in a documentary, of COURSE both sides should be addressed. That is the essence of any movie....a conflict.


clothedmuch.blogspot.com

Eri said...

I am so curious now, I want to watch it.

Thanks for sharing your opinion.

See you soon.

kirstyb said...

i have never even heard of this movie! not much of a helpful comment i know xxxxx

Chelsea said...

Hi Vanessa! Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and for your wonderful comment :) I definitely started it with the intention to show a real body in cute clothes, so your appreciation of that is appreciated!

Anyway, I heard about "Good Hair" and instantly wanted to see it. My colleague was even thinking of trying to bring it to our University to screen it, since it presents such a great issue. I am disappointed to find out what the film lacks, but am glad to have this information. We would definitely want to present the topic in a manner that promotes positivity and embraces all different types of black hair as "good hair" (from natural to chemically altered to locks to braids, etc.), and could perhaps open minds of those who disagree. Thanks for the review!

Liriel said...

@ Amanda
If I might comment on the point you borrowed from the Roger Ebert review about “natural” hair, I would like to point to the fact that the film was not about old White men’s hair, or even White women’s hair; it was (supposed to be) about Black women’s hair and the sociocultural milieu it exists within. I found his point that “few people of any race wear completely natural hair” to be condescending because it’s entirely missing the point. Who is he (or anyone who is not a Black woman) to understand the significance of natural Black hair in a country in which Whiteness is the norm and in a global society in which Whiteness is the ideal? For him to equate a White natural blonde dying her hair brown to a Black woman relaxing her natural hair is, to me, as ridiculous as equating a White woman getting a tan to a woman of color soaking in a bathtub of skin bleaching solution. Certainly I appreciate that there are societal biases that may favor brown hair over blonde hair or tanness over paleness, but in the case of Black hair, there is a definitively racial aspect fraught with history and hierarchy that Ebert is wholly ignorant of.

For a more in-depth analysis of why Ebert’s review was condescending and ignorant, I would highly suggest that you visit the following link: http://www.womanist-musings.com/2009/11/roger-ebert-proves-good-hair-was-made.html

Secondly, while there has been a movement by companies towards offering more non-lye relaxers, it’s inaccurate to say that relaxers that use still use sodium hydroxide (NaOH) are no longer “mainstream.” Soft Sheen, TCB, Crème of Nature, Johnson Products, Motions, Revlon, and Ultra Sheen by P&G are all brands that still use NaOH as the active ingredient in their relaxers that are not specified as “non-lye.”

My third and final point is, I admit, nit-picky, but I am a biochemist, so I feel obligated to say something about how relaxer and permanent are not the same. To begin, one must begin with the difference between curly and straight hair: the disulfide bonds that link the cysteine amino acids in one’s hair. Curly hair has more disulfide bonds than straight hair and the connections are more crooked whereas the few disulfide bonds in straight hair tend to be more aligned. Therefore, permanents consist of reforming existing disulfide bonds as well as forcing new bonds via a redox reaction while relaxing often consists of breaking and capping off existing disulfide bonds via a lanthionization reaction. This is why relaxers and permanents employ different chemicals, relaxers often using harsh hydroxides such as NaOH or guanidine hydroxide while permanent use much milder thiols. It is theoretically possible for hair to be straightened using thiols and permed using hydroxides, but relaxing formulas using thiols are extraordinarily few as well as more expensive, and interestingly, there are absolutely no perm formulas currently on the market that use hydroxides; they are reserved for relaxers. The reason for THIS is because the lanthionization reaction is extremely harsh on the hair and caustic to the skin; however, it is also more durable and efficacious.

As I was typing this final point out, it occurred to me that perhaps it is not as nit-picky as I originally thought as there are issues of class and financial viability at play that tie into issues of race regarding who is protected from the harsher method of hair reshaping and who is expected to make do with that cheaper, harsher, but more durable method.

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