Like the titular follicles this documentary surveys, Good Hair is a bit all over the place.
It's about black women trying to achieve "European" standards of beauty, about the way black men feel such "unnatural" hair keeps them at a distance, the loaded language that frames the way black people relate to their hair, about black hair salons and their role in the economy of black communities, about India's thriving hair-weave export trade and the alarming and dangerous chemistry of hair relaxers.
All because Chris Rock, who narrates and does the interviewing here, was shocked when his little girl asked him, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"
Rock, at ease in his comic and social commentator role, doesn't so much challenge the dogma of "If your hair's nappy, you're not happy" as illuminate it.
The hair-care industry, black hair dressers and ordinary black women and men reinforce the notion that natural black hair is "bad hair." And that trick of image and syntax has even working-class women spending a fortune on expensive weaves that can't be touched, fondled or get wet, or have sodium hydroxide rubbed into children's scalps to get them on "the creamy crack" — relaxers — pretty much from birth.
Poet Maya Angelou marvels that "a woman's hair is her glory," before confessing that she, too, has embraced relaxers. Actresses Nia Long and Meagan Good and singers Eve and Pepa detail what they go through to get weaves, and the sort of commitment having those commands from a man. "High maintenance" doesn't cover it.
"Our self-esteem is wrapped up in it," the naturally curly Tracie Thoms (Grindhouse) gripes.
Rock riffs with Indians going to a temple to have their heads shaved and with black women of every physical description, who want hair that they can toss "Farrah Fawcett style."
Rock alternates from amused to amazed, hanging with longtime hair-relaxer the Rev. Al Sharpton, visiting the vast black-owned and operated Dudley Products hair care empire in North Carolina, watching a chemist melt a soft drink can with sodium hydroxide.
The film (directed by Jeff Stilson) goes off track when it gets caught up in a dippy Atlanta hair-styling competition that is more about putting on a flamboyant show and entertaining your fellow hair dressers than styling hair. This contest gives the movie an artificial "big game" framework that distracts from the message Rock is trying to put over — that this "Farrah" hair obsession, sexy as it can be when it's Tyra or Beyoncé tossing her weave, is a new form of slavery and self-exploitation.
Rock has long been the king of comics willing to speak black truth to black people. He seems to pull his punches here. Long, in several comically confessional moments, makes his points for him.
Scattered as it sometimes seems, Good Hair is a real eye opener, both for people who might not realize just what they're spending and what they're doing to their scalps, and to anyone of any race still not comfortable asking, straight out, "Say, how do you get your hair to do that?" The real head-scratcher here is the follow-up question: "Why?"