Morgan Spurlock, look lively. Sacha Baron Cohen, watch your back. Chris Rock's bright, wisecracking exposé "Good Hair" is the mane event.
Let's not call it a documentary; it's just too entertaining. Untangling the knotty issues of identity, sex, culture and commerce surrounding African-American hairstyling, Rock has made his funniest film ever, "Madagascar" and "Pootie Tang" included.
The inspiration for this Sundance-winning charmer came when Rock's 5-year-old daughter asked why she didn't have "good hair." To find out where she got that idea, Rock interviews everyone from men and women in the salon to Ice-T and Maya Angelou. He roams the exhibit floor of Atlanta's massive and surreal Bronner Bros. Hair Show. He stages hair-raising demonstrations of sodium hydroxide "relaxer" literally burning through chicken flesh and disintegrating aluminum cans.
In the process, Rock poses ticklish questions about race and sex. Paul Mooney, who did comedy with Richard Pryor, offers an old-school explanation for the fixation with unkinked hair. "If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If you're nappy, they're not happy." But the film makes it clear that it's an aesthetic choice many women and men make for themselves.
In freewheeling fashion, "Good Hair" bombards us with jaw-dropping info nuggets. Black people, 12 percent of the U.S. population, buy 80 percent of the nation's hair products. It's a $9 billion-a-year market, equivalent to the American breakfast cereal industry. Extensions easily run as high as $3,500, and can make intimacy with women whose hairdo is a No Touch Zone a tricky arrangement. Actress Nia Long, sporting a long, silky, flowing weave, confesses she's never dunked her head in her swimming pool.
Rock travels to India, the hair-export capital of the world, to find the roots of the tress trade. Hindu women cut off their long locks in a religious ritual renouncing vanity, and the temple sweepings are combed, washed and sold to American beauty salons. A commuter's suitcase full of extensions can fetch $15,000. When Rock tests the market for black hair, shopkeepers regard him like a lunatic.
The comedic peak is the twice-yearly Bronner Bros. hair extravaganza, which draws 100,000 attendees. Rock follows four flamboyant hairdressers through a low-budget/high-showmanship styling contest that melds "Iron Chef" and the Westminster dog show. Contestants sashay through bizarre themed presentations that conclude with them cutting heads upside-down or underwater in a giant fish tank. If you saw it in a Christopher Guest film you'd never buy it, yet it's all real. Rock wisely lets the inherent humor of the situation speak for itself. The film is irreverent, not condescending. It tweaks deserving targets, but never mocks. "Good Hair" is a good time.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186