'Good Hair' laughs instead of cries

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What's so funny about so many black women wanting "white" hair? Plenty, it turns out, in Chris Rock's surprisingly insightful documentary, "Good Hair."

The well-known history of black people straightening their natural curls is more tragedy than comedy, rooted in the bygone belief that all things European were better than anything African. But Rock sheds new light on this old story through a poignant mix of interviews, investigation and his trademark satire.

More than a dozen famous and beautiful black women sit for Rock's camera, ranging from the sage Maya Angelou to video vixen Melyssa Ford to an interior designer with a skin disease that has left her proudly bald. Their testimony illuminates today's reality: Black women who straighten their hair are not ashamed of their heritage — like women the world over, they just want to work with what they have.

Men don't escape Rock's scrutiny, either, as the notoriously permed Rev. Al Sharpton and Ice-T are called to account. Sharpton recalls his mentor James Brown buying him his first 'do before they met with President Ronald Reagan, and Ice-T describes going to high school with his hair in curlers — the bigger the better. Other men sport a variety of eye-catching styles, such as the "shag" — picture a puffy mullet.

There are many scenes in beauty and barber shops across the country, where the various meanings, rules and ramifications of black hairstyles are discussed. But the best revelations come when Rock examines the sodium hydroxide relaxer that turns nappy heads silky, and the origins of the shorn human hair that is "weaved" into shorter tresses to create the illusion of length and fullness.

Rock watches sodium hydroxide eat through chicken flesh and dissolve an aluminum soda can. In India, he visits a Hindu temple where women ceremonially shave their heads and a shady character who describes snipping the hair off sleeping women. In Los Angeles, Rock watches an Indian businessman with a suitcase full of bone-straight locks bargain with a black hairstylist who brags about reselling movie stars' weaves to average Janes.

The film's narrative is driven by the Bronner Bros. Hair Show, where top stylists create Las Vegas-style productions to compete for a $20,000 prize. The outlandish contest, which features little actual hairstyling, is a perfect metaphor for the inherent absurdity of a billion dollar industry built on metal-eating chemicals, stolen ponytails and thousand dollar-plus weaves.

This is exactly why Rock is the perfect "Good Hair" host. His ad-libbed quips and silly-serious questions put interview subjects and viewers at ease with this sometimes painful reality, keeping them laughing instead of crying. And when Rock ventures into a hair store trying to sell some kinky "black hair" to the Asian owner, his comedy cuts to the root of the issue in a way Ken Burns never could.

"Everyone want straight hair," the owner says. "It look more natural."

"Good Hair," an HBO Films release, is rated PG-13 for sex and drug references and brief partial nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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