I’ve never had my head tonsured, even as a baby when religious custom demanded it – firstly because my mother adored my baby ringlets (I’m lucky to find simple waves these days), and secondly because I screamed bloody murder when the barber came home for the pooja after my mother had sufficiently steeled herself and my grandfather immediately put a stop to the whole thing. Tantrum skillz – I has it.
So curly hair in my extremely straight-haired family was never seen as a shortcoming, obviously. We’ve heard that kind of hair is very difficult to maintain but we’re much inclined to cast envious sideways glances at other women’s glorious curls. It’s probably not to my credit that it took me till college to observe that curly-haired people will often do anything to have straighter hair.
It was my friend Suzy who brought it home to me. He wasn’t anything remotely like a meterosexual (more like a Neanderthal most days – if you’re reading, Suze, you know what you did! And you probably did it just to freak us out too!) but he still dropped some serious money to have his hair chemically straightened. His curly hair was thick and unmanageable, he said, and it just never looked as nice as his friends’, especially his roommate with the silky, shampoo-ad hair. It didn’t look as good, it didn’t feel as good, it just wasn’t as good.
A few thousand rupees worth of stinky chemicals and much angst later, he emerged with his long-desired straight hair. Things were good for a couple of weeks… until it began to resemble hay. Not the good kind either. And then the roots began to come in and since he wasn’t happy with the eventual texture of his hair (brittle and raspy), he didn’t touch them up. So for the next several months, until his hair finally grew back, he walked around with what looked like tufts of dried, blackened hay sticking up and to either side of his head.
That thing was like a rattlesnake’s stare – you really wanted to look elsewhere but everytime you laid eyes on him, the only thing you could see was the tumbleweed forest on his head. You don’t even want to know what he called the stuff.
Chris Rock’s Good Hair is about a nation full of Suzies. You can’t really call a phenomenon that affects an entire population a “subculture” but given the degree of silence, born out of sheer ignorance and disinterest, on the subject of what black people call “nappy” hair in mainstream circles, it seems an appropriate term for the regimen of chemical relaxants, wigs and intricate weaves that rule the lives of black women (and some men)*.
By now you’ve probably heard the story: Rock has two adorable little baby girls and one of them came up to him one day and asked him why she didn’t have “good hair”. It’s probably apocryphal but it makes as good an impetus for a documentary narrative as any other. Probably better, in fact – there’s nothing like a good daddy to warm up an audience. And it probably goes double in the African American community where the theme is powerful enough to affect Presidential campaigns.
Rock’s quest to find out what “good hair” means to (primarily) black women takes him through beauty salons, barber shops, a hair show featuring an insane hair-cutting competition (think Shear Genius on steroids) where a contestant basically dresses up in Chris Tucker’s costume from The Fifth Element (minus the crazy forehead overhang), the offices of Al Sharpton and Maya Angelou, Beverley Hills and India with many a stop in between.
A couple of things strike you fairly quickly – the first is that Rock is a pretty shaky interviewer. He seems a little lost or at least a little awkward about this whole “asking questions” business. He’s much more comfortable reacting off people, turning their answers into quick quips. But he’s Chris freaking Rock, so it doesn’t get old super fast the way it would have with anybody else. The second thing that strikes you is that this is serious business for his subjects.
The stories might sound incredible and are frequently hilarious, but underlying the laughter is a very real obsession that’s easily relatable to most anybody.
I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, black, white, Indian, Chinese, zebra-striped, Christian, Wiccan or whatnot… you could be paying $400 every two weeks for a shampoo and cut or plonking down Rs. 15 at your neighborhood barber’s for the Shahrukh Khan special, but your hair, as Maya Angelou puts it, “is your glory”. Hell, my brother keeps his head shaven and even then he wants it buzzed at his particular shop, by “his guy”, who knows what he likes. First thing he does when he lands in a new city is ask around and then prowl restlessly until he finds a barber to his liking. And that’s a habit he shares with my father of all people.
So when the woman from Colorado confesses to Rock that she flies up to her native NYC to get her hair done, it made sense to me. Not sense in a “oh, yeah – that’s perfectly logical” kind of way, but in a “well, given her circumstances, I see where she’s coming from” kind of way. If I was paying $1000-3500 for hair that needed to be professionally maintained (including shampoo – if you’re planning on getting a weave done any time soon, I hope you realize you can’t get it wet) once every week or two weeks, I’d be super particular about who touches my head too.
And of course, with African American hair, it turns out you can’t just walk into any old salon and ask them to handle it. Since Good Hair‘s initial release, the kind and number of horror stories that have spilled out across the internet about black women who found themselves with a white hair-stylist who seriously had no clue whatsoever that all hair is not the same, was remarkable. Hair got burnt, broken off; stylists got snippy and asked them why they didn’t take better care of themselves while lecturing them on proper hair…
As someone who once wandered into a Hispanic salon and walked out minutes later with chola eyebrows (worst. day. of. my. life! It took some fancy work with my tweezer and a kohl pencil, not to mention a month of just refusing to look at myself in the mirror, before my face got halfway back to normal), I can appreciate the agony of being stuck with a stylist who doesn’t speak your style language. It’s a funny story now, the same as it is for Salt ‘n’ Pepa when discussing the necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention genesis of their iconic asymmetrical haircut, but at the time? It was traumatic. There’s nothing worse than a bad cosmetic experience.
Take, for instance, everybody’s favorite white hairstylist Jason. “I do not feel as beautiful as I thought I would,” he grimaces in pain, recovering from his first brush with botox in preparation for the insane hairstyle-off that caps the Bronner Bros. hair show in Atlanta (an annual event along the lines of the World Shoe Association show in Las Vegas), a massive convention at which a mostly non-black corporate bloc targets a black audience worth billions.
Good Hair does have a point to make, of course, about the exploitation of poor people through the sale of false beauty standards (Al Sharpton’s rant about waking up in the morning and putting on your subjugation was both powerful and hilarious), and Rock arrives at the Good Parent’s Point as expected by the end of the movie when he declares he’s going to tell his kids they don’t have to risk death by poison just to think they’re pretty.
And in keeping with the narrative that this is a father’s journey to understand the world his daughters are going to live in, the brief glimpses we see of children are the most affecting. When the toddler who hates getting her hair relaxed nevertheless advises his kids to get their hair done (a process involving chemicals that we earlier see melting soda cans, that even Ice-T describes as exquisitely painful), there might be a lump or two that needs to be swallowed. It’s one thing to see grown women reflect certain attitudes about what is the permitted norm for beauty, it’s entirely another when you see little children barely able to speak parrot the same lines.
That’s what really stayed with me at the end of the documentary – the universality of the feelings that drive the women (and some men) featured in this documentary. In Asia, land of the hair that black people see as the epitome of beauty, we have our own dirty little cosmetic secret – the skin lightening industry. Be it China, India, Malaysia, the Middle East… we buy face washes, moisturizers, sunscreens, whatever it’s possible to purchase and then some, in the hopes that it’ll give us lighter skin. And we teach our kids that.
For white people, it’s tanners – perfectly sane people, walking around painted a shade of diarrhea orange because they’d rather that than look “pasty” or, as we call it in Asia, “marriageable”. For those who can afford it, it’s the bee-stung lips of Angelina Jolie that’s the must have – thousands of well-to-do women who look like they traded lips with a duck.
We’ve all got an inner Suzy. Now all we need to do is talk him down.
*I’m not being sexist by delegating the men to parentheses – that’s how Rock presents them throughout the documentary and I don’t know enough about the subject to disagree.