"Girl, call Latisha, your beautician/Cause your hair is gonna need fixin'."
— "Sweat It Out," The-Dream
On "Sweat It Out," from R&B songwriter The-Dream, this line is the ultimate sexual come-on. Because if a (black) woman needs her beautician on standby, then she knows she's about to get into something serious.
Good Hair, a new documentary co-produced, co-written, and hosted by Chris Rock, examines a wide range of issues relating to African-American hair, and this is one of them. Can you touch a black woman's hair during foreplay or sex, Rock asks a group of men at a barbershop. No, no, no, they respond, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. How do you have sex while wearing an expensive weave? "I need to be on top," actress Nia Long responds, blushing.
And then Rock, doing what has made him such a great comic, pushes the issue into even more provocative territory: If you can't run your hands through your lover's hair, doesn't that limit intimacy? Is this a reason some black men prefer white women? One young man doesn't flinch from this question, agreeing with it. And then the barbershop explodes.
Inspired by his own young daughters, one of whom came home from school one day to ask why she didn't have "good hair," Rock sets out on a travelogue that deals with pretty much every issue you can think of relating to black hair care — an enormous industry in America, even if it relates to only a relatively small percentage of the population — and does so both seriously and entertainingly and in only 90 minutes. Good Hair is, quite literally, packed with good stuff.
Along the way, Rock visits a massive hair-care convention in Atlanta, where a truly crazy kind of hairdresser Olympics is held; the largest black-owned hair-care manufacturer in the U.S., in Greensboro; the "weave capital of the world," Los Angeles; and the place where most of the "real human hair" used in weaves comes from, India, where women shave it off as a religious sacrifice.
Rock never shies away from prickly questions: the way weaves and other hairstyles can limit activity (not just sex, but exercise); the appropriateness of importing Third World hair for $1,000 American weaves or of some women (according to Al Sharpton) spending a grand on a weave while struggling to feed their families; the potential dangers of relaxer, aka "the creamy crack," the product used to straighten hair, whose basic chemical compound is shown devouring an aluminum can in four days and immediately burning through the flesh of raw chicken; the use of such intense hair-treatment methods on very young girls, including the marketing of "kiddie perm" treatments.
Early on, Long describes cultural pressure within the black community to have "good hair," which she says equals white hair, but Good Hair is ultimately more skeptical than damning about these issues. Its most frequent tone is concern, and it refuses to flatter its audience, but Good Hair is also a very generous, affectionate film, celebrating black barber and beauty shops as successful middle-class businesses and featuring engaging interviews with a variety of subjects, such as actress Tracie Thomas (who says it's okay for white people to be curious, but don't touch!) and author Maya Angelou (who sharply but warmly reminds Rock that she's not dead yet). Ultimately, it ratifies rapper Ice-T's conclusion, said with a smile and a shrug: "If a woman ain't happy with herself, she's going to bring pain to every single person around her."