IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Malcolm X recalled the first time he had his hair chemically straightened: "The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off. My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn't stand it any longer; I bolted to the wash basin." For Malcolm, the "conk" — as the process was then known — became a symbol of black self-degradation.
Comedian Chris Rock takes a lighter view of African-American hair in the documentary Good Hair, which he produced and wrote with a team including director Jeff Stilson. Rock's premise is captivating. One day, his young daughter asked, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" Weaving together interviews with actresses, musicians, stylists, hair-product manufacturers and, amusingly, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rock explores cultural aversion to naturally kinky hair and shows the lengths to which black women (and some men) will go to achieve straight, European-style tresses — "good hair." That includes skin-burning chemicals, labor-intensive extensions, entire days and thousands of dollars spent at the salon.
Rock is an amusing and curious explorer as he examines this mad pursuit of smooth hair. He enlists a scientist to demonstrate, by dissolving an aluminum soda can, the corrosiveness of sodium hydroxide (lye), the chemical basis of hair straightener. He travels to India to trace the source of much of the hair used in expensive weaves: poor, devout Hindus, who sacrifice their smooth locks in a head-shaving ritual at the temple, which then sells the shorn hair. Rock follows the hair as it travels to Los Angeles, where it's more profitable to traders than gold.
The movie glosses over the political implications of these practices, preferring to focus on the comic elements, like when Rock prods barber-shop denizens to riff on the problems of having sex with women who wear don't-touch weaves. It misses an opportunity to examine the tyranny of "white" beauty standards and wastes considerable time focusing on a glitzy hair-styling competition in Atlanta. But Chris Rock isn't Malcolm X, and the movie is best appreciated for what it is: a funny and informative look at a seldom-explored cultural firstname.lastname@example.org