Chris Rock did not go to the inauguration. "I had to be here," he says. "Here" is Sundance, and on the day after Barack Obama's swearing in, the comedian/director/producer is sitting in an art gallery in Park City, Utah, dutifully promoting Good Hair, his comedic documentary on the wild world of African-American hair care, which premiered in the documentary competition this week. In chatting about the historic events of the week, Rock downplays the notion that having a relatively hip president who can actually speak in complete sentences will be bad for comedy—"Bill Clinton was fine"—and instead cites another area where the inauguration of the first black president hits close to home. "It'll affect my kids, and the world they grow up in and how they're perceived and all that."
“I loooove me some black women, and I looooove the whole hair thing.”
Those kids—two young girls—and their perceptions of themselves play a key role in Hair. The film is shaped around a question from Rock's daughter Lola: "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" Rock then sets out to investigate black women and their relationship to their hair, the lengths to which they go to make it "good", why "good" is usually synonymous with "more white-like," and how a global industry has sprung up to cater to this phenomenon. The film also weaves in a look at the twice-yearly competition at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show in Atlanta, where the city's finest stylists of black hair mount wildly choreographed demonstrations of their abilities. One hairdresser plots to cut hair while hanging upside down from a pull-up bar; another produces a short film featuring her hairdos inspired by Brokeback Mountain.
"It really is a spectacle, “ Rock says. “It's a hard ticket to get anyway, but when this movie comes out, it's going to be even harder. I wanted to do a movie about the Bronner Brothers Hair Show for awhile—I had that idea like 15 years ago. But no one was doing funny docs 10, 15 years ago, and it wasn't like I was famous enough to get anyone to fund the movie back then.”
Comedy docs often privilege the joke at the expense of the story, but Rock says he mocks not just out of genuine interest in his subject, but with love. "I remember, I was at SNL, and Mike Myers had Wayne's World, and people were comparing it to Bill & Ted. And somebody asked Mike, 'Why is this better than that?' And he said, 'You have to love the thing you're making fun of.' If you don't, it's just going to come off as mean. And I loooove me some black women, and I looooove the whole hair thing. I love that world."
As Good Hair shows, it's a wider world than most would expect. Rock follows the trail of relaxing potions and human hair extensions to the many Korean and Chinese-owned businesses which dominate the U.S. market, then learns from celebrity interviewees such as Raven Simone and both Salt and Pepa that the highest quality weaves come from India, where women have their heads shaved in a Hindu sacrifice ceremony. The shorn locks are then shipped to Los Angeles—"the hair extension capital of the world"—where they can be resold for thousands of dollars. The film takes these global economic ramifications of hair extensions seriously, hammering home the point with a comment from an angered Al Sharpton, who rails against black women for wearing emblems of their own "exploitation."
"The reality is, most black businesses are dominated by someone else," says Rock. "When we started this movie, we had no idea we were going to India. We just followed the story." As a fan of Rock's stand-up might expect, Good Hair deftly balances these weightier issues with laughs. "We're always trying to get some humor in. But I'm not trying to be the star. The story's the star.”