I have maintained a mild interest in the whole issue of straight vs. nappy black hair, and its implications, since seeing Spike Lee’s School Daze, which hinged largely on this issue. If a black person straightens their hair, are they adopting a white standard of beauty? I wasn’t even aware that was a question when I encountered the Lee film, and have since been kind of amazed that apparently straightened hair won out [in popular culture] without a question. Beyonce, Halle Berry, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Oprah… almost all contemporary black women of popular culture seem to have adopted straight hair without even bringing up the issue. So I was quite interested to see Chris Rock’s new documentary that promised to delve into the whole thing. But unfortunately, like most modern documentaries, it chooses to skate over a lot of the interesting issues in favor of entertainment.
The credits play over images of glamorous black women in the entertainment of decades past with straightened hair. During this time we discover that the script is written by Pootie Tang himself, Lance Crouther. We then start our interviews with various women today, including the actress Nia Long, rapper Eve, a woman credited as a “video vixen,” another actress, etc. They flat-out acknowledge that straightened hair IS adopting a white standard of beauty, and that’s pretty much it, end of issue.
The movie divides itself into a few casually-grouped sections, the first about chemical hair straighteners, called relaxers. Many of the people interviewed joke along the lines of “If you use relaxer, white people can relax around you.” This is an extremely harsh chemical, and can induce chemical burns on skin. There’s a rather terrifying demonstration of a drop of it placed on a chicken breast… and a few hours later, a hole eaten through the skin and into the flesh. We see soda cans immersed in the stuff, and see how they come out after various time periods, until it has finally eaten through the entire can. A chemist expresses shock that anyone would voluntarily put that on their heads, and advises against it. Nevertheless, Rock interviews many people who use it, often referring to it as “Creamy Crack,” because once you start to use it most people become lifetime users. He goes to a massive show devoted to black hair in Atlanta, where he notes that although blacks are a smaller portion of the general population, they spend much more on hair products. He also notes that the vast majority of black hair products are created and sold by Asians, and there are very few black-owned companies making products for blacks.
We next turn to weaves. This is where a net is essentially tied to your hair, and pieces of longer hair are tied to that. This hair can be synthetic, but human hair is preferred. The big issue is that weaves run $1,000 - $3,500, and many, many black women can’t afford it. Yet they get them, either putting them on layaway and gradually paying, skimping on other necessary items, or finding a man to pay for it. Apparently one also becomes ‘addicted’ to weaves, and tales are told of women who travel cross-country to get their hair done by just the right beautician. The other thing about weaves is that you essentially can’t touch them, so some of the women tell of simply learning never to touch their hair, and much time is devoted to men lamenting the fact that they are not allowed to run their fingers through—let alone touch—their wives’ and girlfriends’ hair. Which makes making love a great deal less intimate.
Most of the human hair used for weaves originates in India, so Rock goes there to find out about it. Many women in India grow their hair long then have it shaved in a religious ceremony called Tonsure, and the temple sells it to hair merchants. Apparently it is so valuable that hair is often cut off of sleeping women or women at the movies. Rock then returns to the States, and in a disingenuous, Michael Moore-type move, “attempts” to sell black hair, and finds to his shock that no one wants to buy it.
Woven though all this is preparation for and finally the competition of this huge black hair styling finals in Atlanta. The whole thing provides a reliable amount of entertainment value, but provides little insight or information about the issues related to black hair.
The movie is very fun and entertaining, especially when seen with a largely black audience, as I did, which laughs and claps knowingly at every little joke and aside. And it happens that director Jeff Stilson is a master of humorous editing, creating comic highlights just through what he cuts to after a certain comment. For example, after hearing a stylist say “If you don’t understand black hair, it can be scary,” then cutting to a woman whose hair looks just a touch on the frightening side. The best of these occurs when a white male hairdresser goes in for botox, and the doctor says “I’m feeling really good about how this is looking,” then we cut to the guy’s face, looking like he’s taken a few bricks on the chin. Rock is also an extremely affable host, developing a naïve and lighthearted persona that encourages people to relax and start talking.
But like most popular entertainments, it left me yearning for something of more depth. The entire issue of whether straightened black hair is adopting a white standard of beauty is tossed off—yes, the film says, it is—and that’s the end of it. No how do people feel about that, no discussion of whether it SHOULD be this way or if it is a contradiction in black pride, nope, it’s just on to the next thing. The other area I wanted more discussion in is that women spend so much money, that they are unlikely to have, on making sure their hair is done. Why is this so important? Why is it more important to look a certain way than be able to be physically free with your boyfriend? How did these priorities get created? But the film only glances at these questions, more interested in entertainment. Also disappointingly, the only talking heads interviews we see are with celebrities, who have an inherent interest in conforming their image to the popular taste, and are more likely to have the money to do it comfortably. We hear from very few regular women about what they choose to do with their hair and what it means to them.
So very fun and entertaining, a quick overview of an interesting issue, but viewers seeking much beyond a surface-level glancing at these issues will be left without a lot to chew on.
It’ll hold up perfectly fine on video, but seeing it with an audience is fun.