July 8, 2009

ROOTS: A 'Good Hair' Day for Chris Rock

When I was a little girl, I used to watch my parent's videotape of Whoopi Goldberg's solo Broadway show over and over. In one her routines, she plays a six-year-old girl who puts her t-shirt over her head so she can pretend to have long, luscious locks. I could relate. My own Jersey Girl hair was of the curly, frizzy variety, and I used to spend hours in front of the mirror, wishing for smooth, straight tresses. I truly believed that if I just had Barbie hair, life would be much, much better.

Apparently, Chris Rock's daughter was having hair issues of her own. His response was to make the HBO Films documentary Good Hair. Hilarious, informative and at times alarming, the Sundance Special Jury Prize winner provides audiences with an entertaining education about the contemporary world of Black hair.

The seed for the film was planted about 15 years ago when Rock was doing a stand-up gig in Atlanta and stumbled across some interesting characters staying in his hotel who were attending a hair convention. The project came up again when he was shooting The Chris Rock Show for HBO, which ran from 1997 to 2000. Rock and his creative team talked about the possibility of doing a movie together, but when the show ended, everyone dispersed to work on other projects and the idea fell into the void. It was only in 2006 when his little girl Lola asked, "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" that he decided it was finally time to commit to making the film.

Luckily, Rock was able to assemble much of the team from The Chris Rock Show to work on Good Hair. Alums include executive producer Nelson George, director Jeff Stilson and writers Chuck Sklar and Lance Crouthier. Reuniting with previous collaborators was a key reason George decided to sign onto the film. Says Rock, "It was cool. We'd done these remotes [on the show] and Stilson had directed most of those. So we kind of had a shorthand already."

To prep for the film, the Good Hair team went back to Atlanta to the scene of Rock's original inspiration for the film: the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show and Battle, the largest African-American hair show in the United States. Part trade show, part live competition, the event was instrumental in educating the filmmakers about the business and culture of African-American hair. 

The "battle" itself becomes the spine of the film, as the audience follows an array of eclectic stylists while they ready themselves for competition. The larger-than-life characters range from a stylist who cuts hair underwater in a fish tank, to Tanya Crumel, who attempts to cut hair while hanging upside down, to the flamboyant, portly Derek, for whom custom-made boots are a key part of his cutting strategy.

Surprisingly, the champion stylist everyone wants to beat is not the one the viewer might expect. His name is Jason Griggers, and he's a laid-back white guy from Atlanta who sports floppy blonde hair and polo shirts. By including Griggers, the film is able to subtly explore racial issues organically through a story rather than a lecture or history lesson. The mostly white audience for the film at Sundance was intrigued by Griggers' background. At the post-screening Q&A, an audience member asked him how he built his business. He responded that it had been a struggle in the beginning, but ultimately he succeeded by simply being really good at what he does.

Between the hair show segments, Rock and his team explore the multi-million dollar business of Black hair. Their journey begins at the local beauty shop and takes them all the way to India, which is the source for the hair used in many of the weaves worn by African-American women. Each year, more than 10 million people in India sacrifice their hair in a religious ceremony called "tonsuring." The hair is then processed and sold to hair dealers, and eventually makes its way to salons and stores from Beverly Hills to Atlanta.

"The business of hair was shocking to me-how it ran like Apple or General Motors," Rock says. "It's like sugarcane or something; it's really no different."

George was also surprised by the extent of the "international hair economy," a phrase he coined during shooting. "Hair goes all over the world," he notes. "If we had had more money, we would have actually gone to China to the big processing plants. We went to London and there are huge streets with scores of hair places. This is a vast business with many, many tentacles."

Another big surprise for the filmmakers was how hair issues can translate into intimacy issues between men and women. Due to the high price and time commitment of hair maintenance, women protect their hair at all costs, which often means that they won't let men touch it.
"I'd never really thought about what a hair weave meant to a woman, and that, in fact, it would stop her," Nelson admits. "I knew they wouldn't get into the water, that it was water sensitive. But this whole thing about not touching-what does that really say about how intimate you can be with someone when you can't touch her hair?"

Rock, too, had been in the situation where he hadn't been allowed to touch. "I'm so used to not touching!" he jokes. "But the flip side is, if you've been with a girl and you couldn't touch her hair, the day you're with a girl and you can touch her hair, you don't take your hands out of her fuckin' hair! You're just like ‘Oooohhhh.'"

To help audiences get up-close-and-personal with Black hair, Rock recruited a number of successful actresses to appear in the documentary and share their experiences about straightening hair, weaves and product. Political and cultural figures such as Maya Angelou and the Reverend Al Sharpton also offer commentary.

The actresses are honest and funny, and their candor adds depth to the film. "A lot of them I'd known awhile," Rock explains. "I tried to pick people I thought had diarrhea of the mouth."

Tracie Thoms (Cold Case, Rent) talks about the pressure she faces in keeping her hair natural, and questions why her decision to do so is considered revolutionary. For Nia Long (Big Shots, Big Momma's House), hair is something she likes to have fun with. She says, "It's like a character for me; it's different in every movie."

While the actresses' opinions about hair are as diverse as their hairstyles, almost all agreed upon the importance of hair to one's self esteem. So it doesn't matter if you're Whoopi Goldberg portraying a six-year-old, or if you're a famous TV actress; almost all of us at some point have stood in front of the mirror and wished for hair different from our own.

During the Q&A, Thoms said that she was grateful to Rock for doing the movie because it finally gave her a chance to talk about her hair. She eloquently summed up the paradox surrounding African-American hair: "The mystery of our hair is almost perpetuated by the reluctance to talk about it. People don't see it, so they're curious about it. They want to touch it, and we get offended. But they so rarely see real Black hair."

Good Hair goes a long way in quenching that curiosity, doing so with a light touch. Rock dons wigs at stores, jumps into an assembly line at a relaxer processing plant, and gently calls out the absurdity of putting a product on one's hair that causes soda cans to disintegrate. Rock says that these moments occurred spontaneously during shooting, but they feed into his general philosophy about coupling knowledge with comedy.

"There's a lot of great information in the movie, but you will digest none of it unless there is laughter," Rock maintains. "So if the movie's not funny, we're not even here right now. People are just like ‘OK, that was interesting about black hair; what's next?'"

What's next for Rock may be another documentary. He had such a good experience with Good Hair that he'd love to find another idea for a nonfiction film. "In a weird way, I think this is the best movie I've done," he admits. "I think I'm more natural, and I'm getting laughs in a weird, unforced way. I would love to do this again. I do a stand-up special every three or four years. I would love to get one of these into the rotation."

 

Good Hair will be released to theaters this fall through Roadside Attractions.

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary. She is still searching for the perfect hair product.

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