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Chris Rock's documentary offers hair-raising look at black women's risky style

Good Hair (R) (95 min.) — Chris Rock loves African-American women, but what is up with their hair? They straighten its natural texture with relaxer chemicals that can melt a soda can, spend thousands of dollars on weaves and extensions, and make hairstyling a spectator sport. An industry supported almost exclusively by African-Americans is controlled by whites and Asians.

Can a brother get some answers here?

Yes, and Rock uncovers a few in Good Hair, a breezy documentary superficially pondering such socio-tonsorial issues. Rock isn't Michael Moore; his questions are more bemused curiosity than accusations. Yet beneath the comedian's affable approach is sincere concern for black culture, health and economics, giving pause even to a white, balding movie critic.

Rock's quest began when his crying 3-year-old daughter asked: "How come I don't have good hair?" She meant the permed, pressed look that celebrities like Beyonce make the model of Afro-feminine beauty. From that inspiration at home, Rock travels from Atlanta to Beverly Hills asking women, stylists and men who are often saddled with the bills why radically changing one's appearance is so important, even with the risks.

Interviews with subjects ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T provide amusing insight into what can only be described as an addiction to style; "creamy crack" is what the straightening chemical sodium hydroxide is called in some circles. But sodium hydroxide is so irritating that scalps can be permanently scarred if applied too long. Rock could quarrel with its makers and users but like every other subject broached, Good Hair is timid about confrontation. Getting laughs is more important.

Rock's impish approach works best in a segment filmed in India, the primary source of human hair for extensions and weaves. He takes a bag of "black hair" to a dealer whose revulsion at the sight is awkwardly hilarious. Rock visits a temple where heads are regularly shaved for religious purposes then scooped up by entrepreneurs who sell the hair for small fortunes.

The weave segment extends to a barbershop discussion and star testimonials about the dangers of touching a black woman's manufactured hair. Especially during sex. If scalding chemicals and high maintenance aren't bad enough, Rock suggests, that's a point to seriously consider.

Conversely, scenes from the Hair Battle Royal among flamboyant hairdressers don't add much substance to the discussion. They're also a key element of a lawsuit by filmmaker Regina Kimbell, claiming Rock stole the idea for Good Hair from her 2006 film, My Nappy Roots. Rock and director Jeff Stilson could have saved themselves trouble and streamlined their movie by leaving them out. B

Steve Persall, Times film critic

Chris Rock's documentary offers hair-raising look at black women's risky style 10/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 12:47pm]
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