Often, a documentary movie can reveal a whole world you never knew existed. Sometimes, that unknown world may even be occurring right alongside your own. Good Hair, comedian Chris Rock’s documentary about African-American hairstyles, was like this for me.

Growing up, I saw black people wearing their natural hair all the time. There was Roberta Flack on her Quiet Fire album cover, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jackson, Clarence Williams III (“Linc” on The Mod Squad) and on and on. Black kids I went to school with had Afros and Afro picks. It was just a matter of course.

At some point in the decades since then, however, natural black hair has apparently been rejected as crude, and a lucrative industry has grown up around giving black people straighter and longer hair.

Starting with a question asked by one of his young daughters (“Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”), Chris Rock’s documentary examines this phenomenon. Good Hair is centered on the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, a huge semiannual trade show and hairstyling competition held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. It also takes us to Greensboro, North Carolina, to Harlem and Los Angeles, and even to Tirupati, India as it traces the strange and sometimes frightening pursuit of straight hair for black customers.

First of all, there is “the process” — chemical hair relaxers typically employing sodium hydroxide (a.k.a. lye) in a cream that’s applied to the hair for a brief amount of time, then rinsed out and followed by hot combing. The problem, of course, is that sodium hydroxide is a very caustic substance, and so using it can sometimes cause extremely painful burns and even kill hair at the roots. Repeated exposure is not desirable, yet hair relaxer must be reapplied as untreated hair grows out. Hence, the product is known as “creamy crack.”

Despite the fact that sodium hydroxide can virtually dissolve an aluminum soda can in 4 hours, the same chemical is marketed for children as young as 3, or 2, or even 1 and a half years old as a “Kidee Perm.”

Interspersed with the movie’s barbershop and beauty salon footage are interview clips from a good many celebrities, ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T. In one of these, comedian Paul Mooney explains, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.”

Chris Rock travels to Greensboro, former capital of the Confederacy, to visit Dudley Beauty Corp., an African-American owned empire that not only manufactures hair products like relaxer, but also trains cosmetologists. Rock says the company is valued at up to $100 million and its corporate campus occupies 47,000 acres of land.

He also visits the Harlem office of Rev. Al Sharpton, who talks candidly about his experience with hair relaxer, first used at the insistence of James Brown before visiting the Reagan White House to lobby for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Besides relaxer, there is also “the weave”: long hanks of someone else’s hair fastened by one of several methods — glue, sometimes, or sewing, or a mesh fitted close to the scalp. As Ice-T observes, the precise details of how a weave is attached are very mysterious, almost like the practices of a secret society.

How much a weave costs may be even more surprising than the procedure. Music video model Melyssa Ford says she pays $1,000 for a weave, which does not include the price of the actual hair. Over a year, a woman’s weave expenses could easily reach $18,000. Sessions can last 6 to 8 hours, and top out at $3,500. There are layaway plans for hair weaves. One hair convention-goer says the weave accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the $9 billion black hair business.

And where does the actual hair — someone else’s hair — come from? In Tirupati, India, at the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, Rock observes a seemingly endless stream of Hindu devotees having their heads tonsured (shaved) as a show of humility or gratitude. The temple turns around and auctions the hair to international buyers. Rock says, “The money made at this temple is second only to the Vatican.” (The BBC estimates the sacrificed hair brings in around $6 million annually, which of course is far less than what the Vatican takes in.)

From India, Rock follows the hair to Beverly Hills, where a hair dealer totes $10,000 to $15,000 worth of hair around in a suitcase to the top salons. As stylist Elgin Charles explains, “Weaving is where the money is. It takes you up there, puts you up there with the doctors, you know, that kind of income.”

All this effort and expense makes black women’s hair a bit of a sensitive subject. Interviewees of both genders agree that the construction details of a black woman’s hair are not readily discussed, and by no means is her hair ever to be touched. Furthermore, activities such as swimming, steam baths, showering, and sex are all limited in deference to the hair.

Back in Atlanta, Rock gives us a long gander at the “Hair Battle Royale” capping the 60th Anniversary Bronner Bros. Hair Show. The competition has the over-the-top feel of a heavyweight championship in Las Vegas, with stylists Tanya Crumel, Freddie J, Derek J, and Jason Griggers each taking turns in the ring to present a staged and choreographed spectacle ostensibly related to hair design.

The competition is amusing, but the real gems in Good Hair are the questions Rock raises about self-image vs. safety and cost. He probes good-naturedly and unobtrusively, never really pushing an opinion, and rarely trying hard to be funny. There’s plenty of humor in this movie, but most of it springs naturally from stories and conversation about the lengths to which people will go in their quests for style.

Amy and I both enjoyed Good Hair, and I rate it three stars out of four.

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