Chris Rock’s 2009 comedy documentary, ‘Good Hair’ might seem like a simple straightforward comedy documentary about a women’s hair salon. Actually, it goes deeper than that. Something as seemingly simple and innocuous as hairstyle actually has deep historical roots in the African-American community. During slave years and the years following, African-Americans were defined by the norms of beauty of a community outside itself.
The phrase ‘good hair’ meant an African-American had straight hair. This was the standard of beauty among many African-Americans during slavery and for many years after slavery. This internalization of the greater White American culture’s beauty norms provided a stark reminder that African-American communities haven’t fully outgrown the mental colonial legacy of slavery. What more direct form of colonial slave-master control do you need than the ability to control an otherwise ‘free’ community’s internal definition of beauty.
For many decades after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans found themselves conforming to white standards of beauty and, more troubling, enforcing such standards by putting down people who had hair that didn’t fit the standard. These brothers and sisters didn’t have ‘good hair’-their hair was called ‘nappy’ and other derogatory terms. In reality, they had hair that Africans had. In other words, their hair was more natural than ‘good hair.’ It was only until the Black Power and Black Identity movements of the 1960s that African-Americans began to embrace hair styles and hair types that fell out of the ‘good hair’ classification.
The 1960s, after all, was the decade of the Afro. Still, this tension between those who continue to consider straight hair as ‘good hair’ and those who champion a more ‘natural’ look persists to this very day. This is the internal community tension that ‘Good Hair’ is premised on.
It is a light mock documentary treatment of how African-American women and the African-American community in general deal with this internally divisive issue. While it is criticized for ‘glossing over’ this tension, ‘Good Hair’ actually addresses this-in its own, humorous, terms.
A montage of Interviews
The great thing about ‘Good hair’ is that instead of approaching the ‘good hair’ controversy in a ham-fisted sermonizing way, he used the humor of different interviews with many prominent members of the African-American community to produce a sort of collective soul-searching regarding this otherwise polarizing issue. In many cases, people are more open to reexamining their own assumptions when they are given the opportunity to see the humorous irony of their position and situation instead of being beaten over the head with politically correct dogma.
The range of interviewees, from Rev. Al Sharpton to Nia Long and Ice-T among others is instructive on many levels. First, it doesn’t come off as heavy and preachy and second, it puts a very personal feel and a human face to what would otherwise be an internal community dialog that tends to be highly politicized. Throughout ‘Good Hair’ there is an underlying and unifying theme of self-empowerment through self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Far from being an ‘African-American’ movie geared towards a certain ethnic community, ‘Good Hair’ is instructive in that allows all culture groups (whether in the form of sexual orientation, ethnicity, racial groups, religion, or other culturally defining shared factors) to seriously analyze how they internalize oppressive values and thinking that seek to deny part of their humanity.