Is it possible to talk about the fascinating and complex universe of black hair without dealing with race and identity? That’s the question posed by Good Hair, director Jeff Stilson and co-writer/producer/narrator/star Chris Rock’s charming new comic exploration of African-American hair. The film is filled with sadly telling moments, like a black beauty student telling Rock that she’d have a hard time taking a job applicant seriously if he had an afro, yet its tone is one of amusement rather than indignation. Rock is an entertainer, not a polemicist, and Good Hair will never be mistaken for a college course in African American Hair And Racial Identity, though it does stress the pain women will endure and the exorbitant prices they’ll pay to keep up with follicular trends. To the film’s subjects, paying thousands for a complicated, high-maintenance weave is less a luxury than a necessity, even for those low on the socio-economic scale.
Borrowing moves from Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Good Hair alternates funny, candid talking-head interviews with famous folks like Nia Long, Ice-T, Al Sharpton, and Raven Symone with prankish stunts like Rock trying to sell African-American hair on the street and an extended trip to the Bronner Brothers Hair Show. During the climactic Hair Show competition, stylists battle in flamboyant production numbers that take showmanship to comic extremes, from a fuzzily conceived bar scene involving an aquarium and underwater hair-styling to a dizzy spectacle involving more or less an entire marching band.
Unlike his more political peers, Rock didn’t go into the project looking for subjects and situations to support a preordained thesis. Instead he lets curiosity be his guide as he ambles affably from barbershops to Hollywood to India, where hair is both big business—it’s the largest exporter of human hair—and a matter of religious significance. Rock proves a delightful host, refreshingly willing to play straight man to the larger-than-life characters he encounters. In what only appears to be a detour, Rock follows a gay white man who has emerged as the stylist to beat in the Hair Show battle royale to a Botox appointment where the film conveys, with its trademark lightness of touch, that the willingness to withstand pain and great cost for the sake of looking good transcends race. In chronicling the permutations of black hair, the filmmaker ends up making a breezy statement on the universality of narcissism.