2010 – 96mn – 12A

Directed by Jeff Stilson. Written by and starring Chris Rock.

Review by Walter Nichols

ONE of the smaller releases of the week (which, in addition to Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, include rom-com When In Rome and the Judd Apatow spin-off Get Him to the Greek starring Russell Brand) is comedian Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair. And it’s very much worth seeing.

The idea for the film was born when Rock’s young daughter asked him “daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” It turns out hair is a hugely important subject for African-American women. Whether it’s good (read “like white hair”, i.e. smooth and straight) or bad (read “natural”, i.e. most often curly, frizzy, and hard to manage) is vital to their self-image. As Rock goes out onto the streets and into the barbershops of America, we learn about sodium hydroxide, a toxic chemical used to relax hair but which often burns your scalp right off; weaves, essentially thick, expensive wigs covering women’s real hair; and annual hair conventions, in which barbers compete in elaborate, Britain’s Got Talent-like displays, the winner often being decided on how well they perform their gimmick (cutting hair upside down, for instance, or underwater). We learn that paying for the hair is one of the African-American boyfriend or husband’s main upkeep duties, and that after paying for the hair he’s not allowed to touch it, even during sex, as it’s there purely for decoration. Rock even travels to India, where much of the fake hair used in America comes from, recycled after traditional tonsure ceremonies.

It’s a funny, unexpected, and surreal jaunt into a different world. Rock is a warm, entertaining host, and he gets plenty of help from relaxed interviews with contributors as varied as Maya Angelou, Ice-T, Eve, Kerry Washington, Al Sharpton and more. True, these names are more familiar (and will carry more weight) with American audiences than with British ones, and if you’re not into documentaries, this may be a bit too “talking heads” for you. Otherwise it’s absolutely worth your time, and without beating the point into your skull it even manages to intellgently reflect upon such issues female self-esteem, successful relationships, and the insidious ways in which black Americans are raised to think that everything white is better than everything black. Even their hair.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 stars