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With his Sundance-winning comic documentary "Good Hair," Chris Rock explores the cultural, political and financial significance of relaxers, weaves and extensions in the black community. Not since "There's Something About Mary" redefined styling gel has hair been so funny.
Rock produced, co-wrote and stars, interviewing celebrities from Raven-Symone and the Rev. Al Sharpton to Ice-T. He traveled with a camera crew to India, where most of the hair sold in America's black salons is harvested. And he documented Atlanta's stranger-than-fiction Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, where beauticians compete in a surreal hairdressing showdown. Last week he spoke with us by phone from New York.
Q The film says the genesis of the project was when your daughter asked, "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" Is that really where it started?
A It really started 17 years ago with me being exposed to the Bronner brothers' hair show. I always thought it would be a good idea for a movie but 17 years ago I wasn't that famous and they weren't making funny documentaries like they are now. So it was just a dumb idea that anybody I told looked at me like I was crazy. So I kind of let that dream die. Then my daughters sparked it up again. Now there are so many weird documentaries they're probably going to add an Oscar for the funny documentary category.
Q What did it feel like to win at Sundance?
A Great. Winning was icing on the cake. I've been in the business a long, long time. I'm at like retirement age for most jobs. So to experience anything new at this age is kind of remarkable. 'Cause I really have seen it all eight times. Now they're asking me, "Wanna do another doc? How about a doc? What's the next doc?" It's not going to make me rich, but creatively I like it. I feel the growth.
Q The Bronner brothers' show is just astonishing. It's like Christopher Guest on powerful drugs.
A I had half a mind to write a real movie about it but you can't top what actually happens. It would just seem crazy. "I'm gonna cut hair in a fish tank" just seems crazy. No one would believe that. You'd be getting notes (from studio executives, recommending changes) forever. The studio would just be, "No, that would never happen."
Q The innate absurdity of the situation is there, but you're very sensitive about not mocking people. You don't crack jokes about it, you treat it with dignity and respect and just say, "Take a look."
A There's comedy there. But you're talking about the 60th annual hair show. They've been doing hair shows for longer than I've been around. It's the biggest convention in Atlanta, which might be the biggest convention town in the country. For all we know, being a comedian is a joke and cutting hair upside-down from a trapeze is an actual artistic profession.
Q How do you define good hair?
A Whatever hair makes you feel good is good hair, ultimately.
Q What about when the hair that grows on your head, in its natural state, doesn't make you feel good? And you have to go through a lot of expense and trouble to turn it into something you like?
A It's our whole society. Plastic surgery; nobody likes what they look like. Nobody's confident in themselves. It's so rare. Everybody's competing for some imaginary pageant.
Q We see you and your daughters in the film but not your wife. Why not?
A I have a policy. Don't hire people you can't fire.
Q It's an interesting cross-section you have discussing hair, from Maya Angelou to guys in barbershops to Salt-N-Pepa. How did you choose who to feature?
A It's a grab bag. Some of them were people I knew. Some, I got lucky. For every person in the movie, three people got cut. You start high. It's like "Dancing With the Stars." They don't start with Scott Baio. They make a lot of calls before they get to Scott Baio.
Q It's amazing to learn that Nia Long, because of her hair weave, can't use her swimming pool.
A Yeah. Poor pool.
Q Without their wigs and weaves would Nia Long and Raven-Symone and Megan Good be as successful?
A They're all very talented actresses, so I'm sure they'd work. They'd probably be typecast. Tracie Thoms (who wears her hair in a cascade of natural curls) is always best-friendish. She says she always gets offered lesbians and cops, nothing really feminine.
Q Paul Mooney says in the film it's all about getting white people to relax. If your hair is manageable, you'll be manageable.
A I think that's an old assumption. Obviously it doesn't make you look any less black. Paul's close to 70, he did comedy with Richard Pryor. That was definitely the thought then. Maybe, though. When the New Yorker did that infamous cover of the Obamas, Michelle did have an Afro, fist up. Maybe it does ease people at some level.
Q Is the whole issue of black hair a uniquely American phenomenon? Is it an equally big deal in Europe and the Caribbean and elsewhere?
A Yeah. It really is. In the Caribbean and Africa and India they're buying skin lightening cream. All over the world people like European features. But it changes over time. Today you'd be hard pressed to find a black man with something in his hair but most black men had something in their hair back in the Sam Cooke, Floyd Patterson days. Even the '90s. But the last 15, 20 years you're hard pressed to find a black man with chemicals in his hair. Except Prince.
Q The side trip to India was fascination, especially the concept that there are hair thieves there running around with scissors. That's a category of crime you could not make up.
A That's why it's a documentary, not a narrative. No one would believe it.
Q Was it tough to get financing for this?
A It was a tough sell. HBO ultimately kicked up the money, not a ton of money. They thought I could be doing something better with my time. Do a talk show for a year, do a Christmas special. Anything but this hair movie. An Easter special, anything that wasn't this. Pretty much every manager and agent I had thought this was a bad idea. But I remember talking to Tyler Perry. His first movie came out, made $26 million that weekend. I'm talking to Tyler Perry on Monday and I said to him, "Even today you'd have a hard time selling this movie." Even today you'd have a hard time selling this hair movie. But this is the funniest movie I've ever done. People don't want to show up for a lesson; there's a really good time to be had by seeing this movie.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186