Chris Rock broke through in the stand-up-comedy boom of the ’80s, made his way to Saturday Night Live in the early ’90s, made his name in films around the same time, and eventually emerged as a comedy institution by circling back to stand-up. A protégé of Eddie Murphy’s, Rock scored attention-grabbing roles in cult classics like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and New Jack City before writing and starring in 1993’s CB4. He struggled for a few years after leaving SNL before scoring a huge comeback with the electrifying 1996 stand-up special Bring The Pain, a pop-culture event that instantly established the comedian-actor as one of America’s most important and incisive cultural commentators.
In the years that followed, Rock hosted The Chris Rock Show, a well-received HBO talk show that spun off into the oddball cult comedy Pootie Tang (which he produced and appeared in), wrote and directed 2003’s Head Of State and 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, provided voiceovers for the Madagascar movies and Dr. Doolittle, and continued to release popular stand-up specials like Bigger And Blacker, Never Scared, and Kill The Messenger in addition to creating and narrating the semi-autobiographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. Rock’s most recent project is the charming comic documentary Good Hair, a bemused, affectionate look into the world of African-American hairstyles and their myriad permutations. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Rock in a Chicago hotel room about the racial and sexual dimensions of weaves and relaxers, why he remade and de-Brit-ified Death At A Funeral, and why Barack Obama’s election is a victory for white people.
The A.V. Club: From the film, it seems like having a weave greatly inhibits what you’re able to do sexually.
Chris Rock: It’s like with any kid: There’s a bunch of rooms in your house and there’s a room you can’t go in. That’s the room I want to go in! When women have weaves, it’s like, “Oh, you can’t touch this.” “I wasn’t even thinking about touching that thing.” And you’ll fixate… You will break up with somebody over that. Is there any place in my life I have no rules? This would be the one place I’d like to have no rules.
AVC: What surprised you the most during the making of this film?
CR: The thing that surprised me the most is just how much money women that weren’t rich were paying for their hair. When you’re in a beauty parlor in Harlem next to abandoned buildings and somebody’s paying five grand for a weave, that’s a bit much. I think this is, in a weird way, part of the health care debate. It’s like, hmm, there’s people with $2000 weaves that could have bought health care with that weave money. They don’t have insurance. People want what they want. And I guess that is a reason we have this big credit card problem and a lot of these foreclosures.
AVC: Do you think universal health care should cover weaves?
CR: That’s the big question. I think it should cover weaves. It would make a lot of black men happy, I’ll tell you that. It’s like, “Yesss!”
AVC: Could you talk about what it was like encountering The Bronner Bros. Hair Show that figures so prominently in the film for the first time?
CR: It was just this world that existed unto itself. It was like discovering Atlantis or something. And right away I thought it was a movie, which was an odd thought since there were no movies like that. And I wasn’t really famous at the time, so it wasn’t like anybody was going to give me money to make this into a movie. Michael Moore hadn’t had a big movie yet. There was no Borat or anything. So it just seemed like a crazy idea. Then you cut to 17 years later and my daughter’s talking about hair and it kinda sparked it up again.
AVC: She asked you why she had bad hair?
CR: [whining voice] “Daddy, I have bad hair.” I go, “Huh?”
AVC: How did that make you feel?
CR: Time to write some jokes. [Laughs.] No. You know, kids really do say the darnedest things. I didn’t go that hard because kids will say anything. My youngest told my oldest she’s gonna murder her one day. It’s like, “Hey, stop it with the murder.” You gotta play it down. If you don’t play it down they’re gonna play it up and it’s going to be a problem. But I lost it. What’s the question again?
AVC: I was asking you about the Bronner Bros. Hair Show.
CR: Yeah. Bronner Bros. is just amazing. I hope they get a lot of coverage. If the movie works, I know so many people are going to be… I mean it’s packed every year. But it’s going to be great to see the white people there next year.
AVC: At one point in the film you’re asked why black women get weaves and you say that it’s to look white. On what level do you think the black hair industry is dependent upon black women internalizing white conceptions of beauty?
CR: Well, that’s not the case with all weaves now. White women get weaves, too. But the act of straightening hair originated as looking white. We cannot dispute that. Now I think it’s more just a style. I think putting a weave on is like putting on a hat. Straightening your hair is just like, “This is the look I’m going for this month.” I don’t think there’s so much pain in it.
AVC: You’re very non-judgmental.
CR: As a guy I think it would have been wrong to come in there judging it one way or another. Plus, when you’re making a real documentary, you shoot it and the movie happens. You don’t make—this sounds corny—you don’t make a documentary, a documentary makes you. It really does. You know the topic; you got a topic that warrants this kind of attention. So I didn’t go in there trying to judge anybody for anything. Come on, please, I’ve had Jheri curls. So what am I gonna say to somebody? I have no desire to piss off the black women of America. What good is that gonna do me? There’s no money in that.
AVC: You’ve had Jheri curls?
CR: New Jack City, I had a Jheri curl.
AVC: But wasn’t that for the role?
CR: No it wasn’t. That movie had no budget. I had a Jheri curl walking around in my normal life.
AVC: What led you to have a Jheri curl?
CR: Before the Obamas, the Jacksons were the first family of America, for black people anyway. So whatever the Jacksons had in their hair, that’s what every black person had in their hair. Tito’s got a Jheri curl. Jackie’s got a curl. I gotta have a curl.
AVC: With Michael Jackson it definitely had racial connotations.
CR: Right. Well he’s from that school. He was that old.
AVC: In Africa are relaxers and weaves used extensively?
CR: Yeah. All this stuff. All over the Caribbean this stuff is big. Matter of fact, when I go to the Caribbean, a couple of times people—hotel people—have stolen my hair products.
AVC: In the film Tracie Thoms says, “To keep my hair the same texture as it grows on my head is seen as revolutionary.” Why do you think that is?
CR: Because people are really scared of how people will judge their natural hair. I read an article, I think in the New York Times. This woman says she keeps her hair straight when she gets a new job until she gets benefits. And then once her benefits kick in she’ll go curlier and natural. A lot of people are scared.
AVC: Do you think it’s the unadorned blackness people have a problem with?
CR: I think so. I think people are so used to straight hair that they take it for granted. They think that’s what a black woman’s hair looks like. In reality it doesn’t look like that at all.
AVC: Part of it might also be related to people strongly identifying the afro and natural hair with the Black Power movement.
CR: Every time we see them in the ’60s, they’re marching. But none of them are marching to a job with a big supervisor briefcase. They’re just marching. Somebody running the company while they’re just marching.
AVC: There’s a heartbreaking scene where a young black woman says if she were interviewing people for a job she’d take a prospective employee less seriously if they had an afro.
CR: There have actually been a lot of lawsuits. I don’t want to get too preachy, but there’s a lot of weird lawsuits where people have been fired for having natural hair. People have been discriminated against for having dreadlocks or whatever. So a lot of that happens. So I get it. I get the fear.
AVC: Why do you think straightening hair is the norm for black women and the exception for black men?
CR: It’s very rare for black men. I don’t know. You kinda just get used to something. I think women are just really into fashion and magazines and stuff like that, and they just know what they see in these magazines. That’s what I gather more than anything.
AVC: It seems like when men go the Al Sharpton route they’re making a statement.
CR: It wouldn’t be a good statement. Wouldn’t be a statement that got you laid. Not in a major metropolitan city.
AVC: Perhaps in the past.
CR: Perhaps in Cincinnati. [Laughs.]
AVC: So men who have Jheri curls should go to Cincinnati?
CR: I saw a lot of Jheri curls in Cincinnati. It’s weird, we had a whole Jheri curl section in the movie but we had to cut it out.
CR: Because people really cared more about women’s hair. But nobody takes you seriously with Jheri curls is what we’ve deduced. If you got an Afro and you go “Fight the power” people will follow you. If you got a Jheri curl, people just laugh.
AVC: It seems like with hair, as with so much else, men have it so much easier.
CR: Oh it’s much easier to be a man. You don’t need hair to be a man.
AVC: Your next project is Death At A Funeral. Why remake a film that came out in English two years ago?
CR: Well, you know, you remake the premise, you don’t remake the movie. I guess some of the big beats are still there. But it just seemed like a solid funeral movie to do. I look at it more like a cover song. When you see it it’s a lot different. And even if it wasn’t a black cast, even if it was an American cast, the original is really British, and we kinda took all the British-ness out of it.
AVC: How do you de-Brit-ify it? Do you remove all the vicars and references to tea and crumpets?
CR: There’s a lot of that. Oh man. You go on a set where nobody would say that. But it’s the attitude. There’s a lot of different jokes in it but mainly it’s the attitude. Martin Lawrence is that successful, half-an-asshole type of brother. He put something funny on that that you wouldn’t normally have. It’s just different from the original movie.
AVC: But you have Peter Dinklage in the Peter Dinklage role.
CR: We do have Peter Dinklage. Even he plays it more as a badass in this one. You’ll see. I just saw an early cut that’s pretty good.
AVC: What made you think of Neil LaBute as the director for Death At A Funeral?
CR: You can’t do comedies with strangers. Your friends know the album tracks. Strangers just know the hits. So I’ve worked with Neil before. We were on Nurse Betty together. We had a comfort level. We talked about it. And you know, he’s not the comedy with a capital C guy. And I’m not the drama with a capital D guy. So certain parts of the movie were my domain and parts of the movie were his domain. I had a good time working with him. I hope I get to work like that again.
AVC: Your last film as a writer-director was I Think I Love My Wife, a remake of Chloe In The Afternoon. What appealed to you about that film’s premise?
CR: You look at a certain situation and you think, “That situation could be funny.” It’s weird, I’ve remade a bunch of movie; I don’t think about what the [original] movie meant to other people. I think that’s what happens a lot of times with remakes. The people who originally saw it are mad because they have a certain feeling to it. But you don’t make the movie for them. You make the movie for the people who never saw it. I thought Chloe In The Afternoon was just a great situation that could lend itself to comedy. You know, I was talking to [Ben] Stiller the other day. You ever see Arlington Road [the 1999 thriller about a man convinced a neighbor is a mad bomber]?
CR: Great setup for a comedy. It’s not a comedy at all. But it’s a great setup for a comedy. So that’s what I felt with Chloe In The Afternoon. And another thing about Arlington Road: Nobody saw it. Not a lot of people saw it, but it’s a really good movie. But the setup is So. Perfect. For. A. Comedy.
AVC: I Think I Love My Wife had more of a dramatic element to it than the films you’ve done before.
CR: I Think I Love My Wife was more a tone I think I should be in with movies, not as silly as Head Of State or something like that. But when I do stand-up it has a dramatic element, you know? There’s always a moment in any stand-up show I do where people are booing. They kinda boo a premise. And then I bail myself out with a joke. But it’s like trying to do movies where there’s a dramatic undertone.
AVC: Is it a good thing when they’re booing? Is it then that you know you’ve really touched a nerve?
CR: Oh it’s perfect. I know I have the joke coming so it’s perfect. They’re really listening and they’re really passionate. “We are now officially on a ride here.” It’s not like being in a TV studio and the laugh sign keeps coming on.
AVC: You’re going on a journey together.
CR: Yeah. This is a real show you got here. You like this part and you don’t like this part. It’s like when you watch a horror movie. [Yells in fright.] You’re into it. That’s what’s real. That’s what I like about when people react, even if it’s a boo. It’s like, “Okay, they’re into it.”
AVC: Kill The Messenger was taped in a number of different countries. Was your stand-up received differently in different countries?
CR: It really wasn’t. There’s this thing I always say when you do a tour, or even when you do a movie: The jokes will work differently in every place you play, but the show plays the same. You’ll see a movie a couple times. You see The Hangover a couple of times. What was the last movie you saw more than once?
AVC: Good Hair.
CR: Good. Alright.
AVC: And it definitely played differently in my mind because I had different expectations.
CR: But the show plays the same. When it was over it was the same movie. You know what I mean? Some of the jokes that worked in Utah [at Sundance] got no laughs in Chicago. Some of it’s vice versa. But when the movie was over it was still the same movie.
AVC: You talk a lot about Obama in Kill The Messenger. Do you think Obama’s election has lulled people into a false sense of complacency where they feel, “How racist can we be if we elected a black man?”
CR: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone thinks there’s no racism… He seemed to be the better candidate. He still seems to be. I don’t think anyone’s clamoring for John McCain.
AVC: But it seems like there was a symbolic victory that was perhaps a little bit deceptive.
CR: Who’s the victor? It’s a victory for white people if anything.
AVC: They all get to feel good about themselves.
CR: You know what it is, what ultimately happened? White people got less crazy. That’s ultimately what happened. To say that it’s progress would not indicate that black people are qualified to be president until just now. No. Black people have been qualified to be president for hundreds of years. George Washington Carver could have been president. I could go on with a list of black men that were qualified to be the president of the United States. So the Obama victory is progress for white people.