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GOOD HAIR is a Great Doc - in Theatres Now
by Denise DuVernay

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Raven reveals in the doc that she has a good weave.

Raven reveals in the doc that she has a good weave.
I'm a curious white girl. I'm the housecat who comes to the kitchen to see what that crinkling sound is. I like learning about muchas cosas: cooking, the cultures of faraway lands, fractal geometry, and of course, black hair. But I know enough not to approach random black women on the streets of Milwaukee and ask them "Whatcha got goin' on up in there? Is that your real hair? A weave? Extensions?" I mean, I do have some manners. I guess I've generally equated black women's weaves to the way white women discuss hair color. In a scenario in which a white woman has clearly changed her hair color, but if you don't know her well or if your relationship is formal, you say "I love your hair!" or maybe, if you're sure she'll appreciate your noticing: "I like what you've done with your hair." If it's your close friend, you say "I love the lowlights you're going with for fall!" It seems that the unwritten rules about hair artificiality diminish as the friendship level increases, whether we're talking black women's hair curliness or white women's blondness. You don't say anything unless you're tight.

Just in the past few months I reached that level of closeness with a black friend. One day, I did ask her what she had goin' on up in there, and she laughed and told me it was a wig. She said she went with a wig because it was easy. Then one day I saw her and she suddenly had bangs, so I asked if she cut bangs into her wig. "No, this is a new wig," she said, patting my silly little head.

Rock's doc talks a bit about wigs, and doesn't get into black men's hair (besides a few affectionate pokes at Prince), because, as he told Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment, test audiences didn't care about black men's hair (although, Rock did tell Mitchell that he has "interesting hair").

Considering the general idea of "black secrets," * and adding to that the challenge of getting a film made whose focus is black people's hair (about as "black a topic there is," Rock says), Rock had a hard time getting the film made. He told Elvis Mitchell that he even asked Spike Lee to direct, but couldn't afford him without losing total control of the film.
Elvis Mitchell: terrific journalist, interesting hair

Elvis Mitchell: terrific journalist, interesting hair
Instead, satiric TV veteran Jeff Stilson directed.

Rock starts the documentary GOOD HAIR with a question from his daughter: "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" Thus begins Rock's quest to answer many questions, some of which are: What is good hair? Who decides what good hair is? Where does good hair come from? And, who pays the price for women to achieve so-called good hair?
Rock's research sends him around the globe, almost literally. He takes his audience to Atlanta, North Carolina, Harlem, Los Angeles, and India. He talks to breathtakingly beautiful black female stars, regular black men in a barber shop (where he incites an argument—ah, that troublemaker). He visits the famous Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta, where the audience sees just what a big business black hair is. He takes us to Greensboro, North Carolina, the relaxer (or "creamy crack") capital of the world, and then visits a chemist who shows what sodium hydroxide (the main chemical in relaxer) does to an aluminum can. Interviewees discuss what it feels like to get hair relaxed, and basically to me it sounds like a colony of fire ants eating your head. (For readers who've never been bitten by a fire ant, keep reading). One person mentioned that if you've got a pimple or something in your scalp, the pain of getting that chemical in there is even more intense. The other day, I cleaned my oven with Easy-Off. I hadn't done it in years and it was getting dangerous. As I was scrubbing, I felt a sharp burning pain around my thumbnail (I ripped off some cuticle earlier). I let a few choice expletives fly and rinsed my hand in cold water. Then I found my rubber gloves. So I asked my friends who've had relaxers if that's what it's like. They said yes, that that's what it's like the whole entire time the chemical is on the head. Color me naďve, but I had always assumed that getting black hair relaxed was a similar deal to a white person getting a perm (which I may have done once or twice when I was a kid—it was the 80s; don't judge me), which can sting a bit, but does not feel like a fire ant infestation. I have a friend who claims it
The Revolutionary Tracie Thoms - my newest girl crush.

The Revolutionary Tracie Thoms - my newest girl crush.
really doesn't hurt that much, but his wife told me that he has a particularly high pain tolerance. So, basically, I would be in tears.

There has got to be a better way, I think. What is that better way? Can't someone invent a relaxer that isn't so caustic? Can't black women just embrace their kinky hair and go with it? I guess that's easy for me to say, as the only person who's ever openly admonished my hair was my mother. Well, for many black women the better way is the weave. There are different types of methods of varying expense, difficulty, and quality, but one thing remains the same: don't touch a woman's weave!

Perhaps the most eye-opening segment for me was when Rock shows the origins of the hair that becomes weaves for black women in the United States, especially in Los Angeles, which Rock calls the Weave Capital of the World. Rock visits a temple in India where hundreds of women and girls are going through a religious rite called tonsure, in which they sacrifice beauty to the gods. The thing is, the gods don't keep all that hair; the temple sells the hair for weaves.

I had known, of course, that weaves were usually made of real hair, but I always pictured it like donating for Locks of Love, chopped in whole ponytails, but here, it's just bags and bags of loose hair that are collected and sorted and sewn into weaves. One weave could have hair from hundreds of people. (Attention writers of Law and Order: if you haven't done so already, or even if you have, a storyline that includes confusion regarding hair at a crime scene showing multiple sources of DNA would be so cool! You can just have that. No need to ask me for permission or pay me or anything. Just write it in. But I think it would be cool if it were a Paris Hilton-type heiress suspected of the crime).

Rock also learns that there is a black market for Indian hair—hair is stolen right off heads while an unsuspecting victim sleeps or takes in a movie, for example. "It's a crime," Rock is told, but not a major crime, "it's just hair."

So if it's just hair, why is it a big deal? Why do women, not just rich women, but women of all
Our Lovely First Lady (her hair makes me happy)

Our Lovely First Lady (her hair makes me happy)
socio-economic statuses, spend thousands of dollars on weaves?

Some postulate that straighter hair on black women makes white people more comfortable. Some argue that women are striving to reach some standard of beauty that entails a more European look. I guess it's a combination of the two—I'm sure that women with dreads or afros have an extra level of racism to contend with than that of a black woman with straight hair. I can't help but think of Imus's "nappy-headed hos" comment from a couple years ago. Beyond the fact that it was beyond sexist and racist, it shows the real or perceived power that hairstyles can have. No one calls Beyonce a nappy-headed ho, I'll bet. As Tracie Thoms remarks in the doc, she is revolutionary for wearing her hair in a way that it naturally wants to go.

I'm not about to tell black women that they shouldn't get weaves or extensions or relaxers-- wear your hair however it makes you happy. I'd be a hypocrite if I told you to be natural: I haven't sported my natural hair color since I was about 16. But don't make changes on my account! We white people have been comfortable for a while. Shake us up! And give us some credit; we did, after all, work together to get Barack and Michelle in the White House; I think most of us can accept a coworker with curly hair. And to my white readers: relax! Cornrows aren't a political statement and dreads don't equal marijuana. Readers of all ethnicities: see this doc. You'll laugh, you'll wince, you'll learn something.

Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to dig through the recycling bin before I take it out to see if the hair dye box I used last week is still in there. I've got to write down the name of the color—I'm liking this shade of auburn very much. It makes my eyes POP!

* Rock tells Mitchell that he thinks the cutoff for sensitivity regarding "black secrets" is about 50-- younger people are more open about their hair, as evidenced by the women in the doc willing to tell Rock about their weaves. Plus, Rock adds, what black people do to their hair isn't much of a secret when the products are sold at every Rite Aid and black hairstyle magazines are for sale at JFK.

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Semi-wholesome Midwestern girl and certified Geek Magnet offers her suggestions - often new, sometimes classic - for DVDs that are definitely queue-worthy.


Other Columns
Other columns by Denise DuVernay:

Goodbye, Du

Du Chats Movies With Comics Author Lonnie Millsap

Du Reviews ALPOCALYPSE by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Another Piece Praising BRIDESMAIDS

Friendship Films and DVD Picks for May 17

All Columns


Denise DuVernay
9 out of 10 librarians think Denise is a hoot. The 10th one couldn't corroborate because she was dead.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Denise DuVernay by clicking here.


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