I Whip My Hair Back and Forth

When it comes to movies, I like a wide variety of genres, but I'll freely admit that when it comes to documentaries, I'm picky. They must function well as a movie, and not just serve as a filmmaker's lecture to the audience. They must try to engage me on a level beyond preaching-to-the-choir about a particular issue. And speaking of issues... There are plenty of problems in the world that would benefit from having a spotlight shone on them, but I avoid documentaries that feel like homework. I can be sympathetic towards the citizens of worn-torn Wherever, but that doesn't mean I'm eager to settle in for two hours' worth of guilt-inducing depression about it.

To me, the best documentaries take a quirky subject I may not know much about, and spend some time exploring it. The best example of this is Spellbound, which delves into the history and culture surrounding the American spelling bee. It also focuses on a diverse group of kids in that year's national bee, resulting in a movie that's fascinating and exciting, even on multiple viewings, when you already know who wins.

So in the same vein of topics I'm interested in knowing more about, I just watched Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair, in which he travels across the country and across the world to talk with people about all sorts of aspects that affect how African-Americans view their hair. I would guess that I'm not the target audience for this movie, so the fact that I really liked it is a big point in its favor. It's easier to tailor a movie to a specific audience's taste, but this film does not shut out the newbies who don't know a weave from a wig.

The movie's topics are mostly discussed via interviews. Everyday citizens are asked about their hair rituals, of course, but there are also numerous interviews with prominent African-Americans. Everyone from T-Pain to Al Sharpton, from Salt-n-Pepa to Maya Angelou offer their perspectives on hair and its role in our current race culture. It's more important than you'd think. African-Americans are in a constant tug-of-war. If they wear their hair in a natural afro, will they be able to land a job interview? Will achieving a "whiter" style via harsh chemical relaxers betray their community? How do lower- and middle-class women find $1000 to spend on a weave when income is so statistically low for the black community? All of these topics are addressed, but with a light, comedic touch that never descends into being an overly serious screed.

The movie is a little overstuffed, though. In addition to topics I've already mentioned, it covers how barbershops are cultural centers, the export of hair from India, the always amusing tumbleweave, and much, much more. A large chunk of it is devoted to a hair competition in Atlanta, but since there isn't enough time to become invested in the competitors, the outcome seems unimportant. And though Chris Rock did a fantastic job putting this movie together, there are far too many cuts to him during the interviews, when letting the interview subject take center stage would have had a stronger impact.

Overall, Rock lets things play out without pushing the narrative in any particular direction, and approaches the topic with the same genuine curiosity about the topic that I have. For a subject as seemingly inconsequential this one, Good Hair does a pretty exceptional job of demonstrating how much culture and self-identity is shaped by those quirky little follicles that sit atop our scalps.

Good Hair: B+


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