'Hair is a woman's glory," says a wise and worldly Maya Angelou in Chris Rock's wonderfully funny, probing coif-doc, Good Hair.
A thoughtful examination of African American women - and African American men - and their feelings about follicles, Good Hair has the comedian and acerbic social commentator trekking from Atlanta to New York to India, asking the tough questions of singers, actresses, high schoolers, and kids, moms, dads, and businessfolk. And business it is: Black Americans spend $9 billion annually treating and straightening - or "relaxing" - their hair, and account for 80 percent of the country's hair-product sales, according to the film.
"You get up and comb your economic exploitation every morning," the Rev. Al Sharpton half-jokes, his trademark James Brown pomp slickly in place for Rock's camera. (And Sharpton explains how the soul singer came to literally shape Sharpton's hairstyle - on a trip to the Reagan White House.)
Good Hair is certainly no arid anthropological study. Rock's queries are loose and quippy, but his instincts are as sharp as an investigative journalist's. If the 1960s gave African Americans a new sense of heritage, a renewed pride that manifested itself in the natural 'do of the Afro, why do so many blacks so many decades later subject themselves to painful and costly chemical treatments to straighten their hair, to make it "lighter and brighter and better"? Implicitly, to make it whiter?
Good Hair, then, is about black identity and self-image as much as it's about commerce and cosmetics. Eve, Melyssa Ford, the duo of Salt-N-Pepa, Nia Long, Vanessa Bell Calloway - a host of smart, beautiful African American women muse about their weaves, wigs, and extensions, and their essence.
Speaking of extensions, Rock sojourns to a Hindu temple in India where women shave their heads as a form of sacrifice to the gods, and canny entrepreneurs at the temple's back door scoop up the silky tresses and export them to America, where they're sold in beauty salons and hair-supply shops for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars.
Rock also heads to the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, an over-the-top annual trade event in Atlanta, where hair products are on display and a wild and crazy stylists' competition combines technique and artistry with a cheesy Vegas aesthetic.
Although its tone is generally genial and jovial, Good Hair touches on some tricky issues, at times complicitly. When Rock enters a Korean-owned hair-supply shop in California that caters to blacks, his condescending questions point to the friction between African Americans and Asians in ways that aren't altogether amusing.
But Good Hair is better than those few shaky moments; it's a documentary that has a lot on its mind as well as a lot on its, er, head.