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Good Hair

Just Relax

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

In Good Hair, his first but hopefully not last documentary, co-writer/producer Chris Rock has a marvelous timely subject all to himself. The easy jokes we’ve all heard at comedy clubs about a black woman’s hair being untouchable are brushed aside: Rock gets to the matter’s center by asking men what it’s like not to have the intimacy to touch a lover’s hair. Or for that matter, what it’s like to be a black megastar and have a Beverly Hills swimming pool you don’t dare swim in for fear of undoing the time spent at the beautician’s. Here is the full irony of a society that elects a black president and where one can still use the word “nappy-headed” as an insult.

Good Hair is a genuine work of investigative journalism. And it’s a risky story, too, all about the time and treasure that people of color spend in search of “good hair”: lank hair that behaves like white people’s tresses. Rock not only has this field all to himself to explore, he explores it with a creative and judicial touch. He shows the political side of the fashion: “Hair relaxers relax white people.” But Rock doesn’t harangue, either -- the personal and the political is blended with a harmoniousness that surpasses Michael Moore’s directorial style.

Rock is, needless to say, funny as hell, even when dealing with the prickly subject of how much beauty products cost. It’s staggering. A weave can cost $1,000 or more, and it won’t last for more than a few months. (The “Tumbling Tumbleweaves” seen in every city gutter are the leftovers from someone’s credit-card-bending makeover.) Rock gives all due respect to the importance of the beauty salon and the barbershop, as small businesses that are centers for the black community. And he notes the millionaires of color created by the industry: there are a few such black-owned businesses left, though most sold out years ago to the likes of Revlon and L’Oréal.

But Rock also wonders about the caustic chemicals that, if trends continue, will one day will be sizzling the scalps of his own two daughters. (Some people here start their children at the salon at age 3.) You may remember that experiment your elementary school teacher used to perform, dissolving a tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola. Using the basis for hair relaxer, sodium hydroxide, a scientist here dissolves an entire aluminum soda can. Ice-T, who one supposes has suffered some pain in his life, describes chemical relaxation as “a torture session.” Billie Holiday adapted the gardenia in her hair trademark to cover a spot burned in her hair back in the 1930s, so it’s sad to hear a musician of 40 years later, Pepa of Salt ’n’ Pepa, telling that she got her own trademark asymmetrical haircut to cover a relaxer burn. It never ends; it’s a chemical bath suffered -- as Rock puts it -- by everyone from Michelle Obama to Condoleezza Rice.

Good Hair nears "60 Minutes" status when Rock explores the hair market in India: a profit maker for a huge temple where the poor get their heads shaved to pay off promises they made to God. The film has its berserk moments in bracketing sequences about the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta, a kind of Olympics of styling in which the stylists try new methods of upside down and scuba cutting. The film is scholarly enough to interview Maya Angelou, Nelson George and the “Dalai Lama of relaxers” Rev. Al Sharpton. White people will learn a lot from this movie they won’t have heard elsewhere; black people will get a chance to discuss whether the gain is worth the pain.