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'Good Hair': Untangling A Knotty (But Big) Business

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'Good Hair': Untangling A Knotty (But Big) Business

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'Good Hair': Untangling A Knotty (But Big) Business

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Comedian Chris Rock begins his latest film by recounting a family conversation.

(Soundbite of film, "Good Hair")

Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Comedian): Just yesterday, my daughters came into the house and said daddy, how come I don't have good hair? I wonder how she came up with that idea.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: And after that question, Chris Rock grabbed a film crew and went in search for answers for his documentary called "Good Hair." Our critic Bob Mondello says that Chris Rock wound up visiting a hair-shaving temple, a hair-styling convention and a lot of hair-raising places in between.

BOB MONDELLO: Start where Chris Rock does. A lot of black women are convinced the natural look is not a good look for their hair.

(Soundbite of film, "Good Hair")

Mr. ROCK: How do we decide what good hair is? Well, at least for some people, that decision is made where all major black decision are made: in Atlanta, at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show.

MONDELLO: The Bronner Brothers sell beauty products, and some 120,000 hair professionals show up for their twice-annual showcases to learn about straighteners, wigs, weaves, extensions, also to watch a competitive styling contest, sort of a Follicular Follies, with everything from underwater haircutting to marching bands, all because the black hair business is big business.

Unidentified Man #1: We're 12 percent of the population, but we buy 80 percent of the hair.

Mr. ROCK: Wow.

MONDELLO: That's a striking statistic, made more striking by the fact that some of the hair products that make up the $9 billion black beauty market are downright painful to use. The chemicals in hair relaxers essentially burn hair straight. And as Rock has a scientist establish with a piece of raw chicken, they can also burn right through skin. Yet these scalp-scorchers are used by everyone from small children to actress Nia Long to the Reverend Al Sharpton, even poet Maya Angelou.

(Soundbite of film, "Good Hair")

Mr. ROCK: How old were you the first time you got a relaxer?

Ms. MAYA ANGELOU (Poet): Oh, God, it's about 70.

Mr. ROCK: Seventy? You went your whole life…?

Ms. ANGELOU: Not my whole life. I'm still alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Once hair is relaxed, there is the issue of fullness, say a slew of celebrities.

(Soundbite of film, "Good Hair")

Mr. ROCK: So what's in your hair now?

Unidentified Woman #1: A few things. Underneath the other hair is the thick hair.

Unidentified Woman #2: This is a weave.

Unidentified Woman #3: That's my edges and everything.

Unidentified Woman #4: I have pieces that are kind of like, you know, like extensions.

Unidentified Woman #5: Right now, I have clips in my hair.

MONDELLO: Looking at these women, you'd never guess that their hair wasn't all theirs, which is the point, of course. But achieving their unnaturally natural look is work. Hair shaved off during sacrifices in Indian temples - and Rock goes to India to watch - finds its way into the hair weaves that cost a fortune in Los Angeles salons, and again, Rock goes to watch.

(Soundbite of film, "Good Hair")

Unidentified Woman #6: She's wearing a hair unit over there.

Mr. ROCK: How much did you pay?

Unidentified Woman #7: A thousand.

Mr. ROCK: You paid $1,000?

Unidentified Woman #6: And those two ladies in the back over there.

Mr. ROCK: The question, where do you work?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Now, a good part of the fun here is Chris Rock, who gets at complicated questions in mostly glib ways. He goads guys in a barbershop into talking about the limbs they'd likely lose if they ever tried to touch their girlfriends' hair and encourages women to comb through all sorts of what you might call tress-ful intimacy issues — when to take a shower together, the awkwardness of what one calls weave sex.

He is not as cutting as he generally is in his stand-up routines. Working with filmmakers who are mostly comedy writers, he's content to avoid the issue's knottier roots. Why is straight white or Asian hair so popular? Black hair less so? Answers will have to be teased out elsewhere. Chris Rock's no hair-etic, and "Good Hair" isn't selling anything but a good time. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of song, "Hair")

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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