Film review: Good Hair (2009)

Hair is an important issue in the black community, getting way beyond the level of attention that people of other ethnicities give it. I first became aware of this fact a long time ago back in Sri Lanka as a student when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964). As a young man of the streets, he adopted the then common practice of ‘conking’ (straightening his hair) and he vividly describes his first experience. As he became radicalized he decided that this attempt to adopt the hair styling of white people was a symbol of how much black people had internalized their sense of inferiority and subservience and he went back to his natural look. The 1960’s was probably the high point of black acceptance of their natural hair. Nowadays it seems like the black community, especially women, has gone back to accepting straight hair and to even see it as desirable. One wonders what Malcolm X would have thought about this development.

I had not paid much attention to this question until I saw the documentary Good Hair (2009) last week. It is produced by comedian Chris Rock who acts as the viewer’s guide through the incredibly complex world of hair products and styles aimed at the black community. Rock said his interest in this topic was piqued when one of his very young daughters came to him one day and asked him why she did not have ‘good’ hair. In searching for an answer, he and his film crew explored the economics, psychology, and sociology of the hair business and its users and it is a fascinating journey.

One way to get ‘good’ (i.e., straight) hair is to simply straighten it. I was vaguely aware that this involved the use of some chemicals but was stunned to learn that the main chemical in question in the ‘relaxers’ (as they are called) was sodium hydroxide. I recall almost nothing from my high school chemistry classes but one thing I do remember is being warned about how dangerous this chemical was (it even goes by the name ‘caustic soda’, which should be warning enough) and to avoid any contact with skin. And here were people regularly and routinely putting it on their heads.

Rock does not shy away from pointing out the dangers, having many of the people he interviews describe the pain of the process. They report that is produces an excruciating burning sensation and that if it is not washed off in time can result in serious scalp burns. If it gets into the eye it can cause blindness. To emphasize the dangers, Rock has a scientist put a few drops of it on a piece of supermarket chicken and shows how it burns a hole through the skin and into the flesh. The scientist also keeps an aluminum soda can in a vat of sodium hydroxide and after a few hours the entire can had dissolved. But despite this, even the parents of children as young as three put this product on their heads.

As I watched this, my mind immediately connected it to the former practice of foot binding in China, in that this was another sign of the extreme burdens imposed on women by the demands of society. A group of young high school graduates said that they felt that a black woman with natural hair simply would not be taken seriously in the business world and would be at a strong disadvantage when it came to being hired at all. It seems bizarre that if a black woman lets her hair grow naturally, she is perceived to be making some sort of militant political statement. This may be a relic of 1960s attitudes.

The other process of getting ‘good’ hair is known as ‘weaving’ and this involves braiding the hair tightly onto the scalp, sewing a tight mesh onto the hair, and then sewing hair that has been bundled into thick strands onto it. This process is also quite painful but at least it avoids putting dangerous chemicals on the scalp. The downside is that it is expensive (running into thousands of dollars) because it has to be done by a professional and takes a long time to complete, almost a whole day. Furthermore, once you get a weave, you are quite restricted in your activities. Going to a steam room or swimming, or even getting your hair wet in the rain, are some of the things that are out of the question. You cannot let anyone touch your hair either.

Where does the hair in the weaves come from? It turns out that it comes mostly from India. Apparently when Hindu women make vows to their god, in return for the sought-for favor they have their heads shaved. Hair is a sign of vanity so shaving one’s head is a sign of one’s devotion, a willingness to sacrifice for god. This shaving happens at the Hindu temples in assembly line fashion with people lining up to get it done, a process known as ‘tonsure’. The hair that is cut is then collected by temple officials and sold to hair dealers, and one suspects that some religious leaders may be cynically exploiting the devotion and gullibility of believers to make a tidy profit by encouraging this practice and selling something that they are given for free. India has about a billion people and Rock says that about 85% of them have had their heads shaved at least twice in their lives. That is a lot of hair.

The hair dealers then clean and sort the hair into thick, long clumps (10-14 inches is about the desired length but the longer the better) that are then sealed in plastic packs and shipped off to the US. One Beverly Hills dealer who had a carry-on sized suitcase containing these packs of hair said that he could sell the whole lot in a few hours for about $10,000 to $15,000, which gives you some sense of the scale of the business. Some black women will spend enormous amounts of money on weaves and other hair products, even as they are struggling to pay the rent and utilities and buy food. The irony is that while the majority of customers who buy any kind of hair product are black (they purchase 80% of all hair products sold), the industry is owned and controlled by mostly white or Asian people.

The documentary spends quite a lot of time on the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show held in Atlanta. This is a huge extravaganza where vendors show off their latest products and it culminates in a contest in which four finalists compete to win the award for best stylist. But don’t think that this contest consists of people simply styling hair. It is more like performance art with elaborately costumed choreographed dancers on sets with lights and music and involves stunts like cutting hair while hanging upside down or underwater. It is quite an amazing thing to see.

The politics of hair is tricky and Rock has to walk a fine line. While he clearly wants his own daughters to take pride in the hair they were born with and not want to straighten it or add weaves, he avoids being judgmental about the people who have taken the other road. He wanders through the world of hair with a genial attitude and a bemused expression and gives the film a nice light touch.

This is an excellent documentary that I can strongly recommend. To people like me, it opened up a world that was all around me and yet of which I was almost completely unaware.

Here’s the trailer:


  1. says

    I was very surprised at to the lengths these people go to with the pride they take in their hair even to risk burning their scalp.
    Furthermore the money that can be made from trading in hair from India. I do recall a friend of mine having extensions and she was told that the hair was asian and had been bleached as this was the best type of hair to use. Whilst us in the West are paying a fortune for ‘improving’ our looks the women of the east are shaving their heads as a sacrifice to their god.

  2. Jared A says

    As a chemist I feel I should comment about sodium hydroxide. Some acids and bases (such as nitric acid, bleach, and sulfuric acid) are dangerous for other reasons than the pH of the solution. However, with certain ones like hydrochloric acid (a strong acid) and sodium hydroxide (a strong base) the hazard is solely in its acid/base properties and thus the resulting pH. The short of it is that sodium hydroxide is only dangerous if concentrated, and is not something to worry about if it is dilute enough (unlike, say, nitric acid). I would happily dip my hand in 0.01 millimolar NaOH, for example.

    That said, the stuff they use in the hair products IS fairly concentrated and I wouldn’t go near it without skin protection. I doubt its strong enough to dissolve an aluminum can in it, so it’s disingenuous to take superconcentrated stuff and show how dangerous that is. A reasonable analogy to that type of trickery would be to show how flammable pure ethanol is--very-- and then suggest that beer must be really flammable--it isn’t.

    Again, let me reiterate that I still think that what’s going on with the hair relaxers is not so good.

  3. says

    This movie was outstanding the only thing that I suggest happens next time is when when pointing out the faults give people an alternative to the practices they are used to. It is no longer good enough to criticize without a solution. This left a lot of women in a frenzy because now they have this great information and are scared to use the perm/relaxer chemicals but where do they go for a better more safe alternative? There are great companies out there like that actually offer organic relaxer alternatives and other organic hair care products. Because it is not only the chemicals in perms/relaxers that are having adverse effects on the human body.

  4. says

    It is true that the subject of hair is indeed touchy. it goes beyond the obvious. In most communities, for example, a person with lesser hair is automatically associated with being “old”. Now, isn’t it time we change our perceptions of things?

  5. says

    Hair extensions and weaves are not always used for vanity. There are a myriad of reasons women (and men) may wear hair extensions. Also the reasons are not necessarily because we “hate” our hair (or our heritage).

    But I do love this article and always love reading different perspectives.

  6. says

    I want to approach this article in a very calm manner even though there are some points I don’t agree with. I understand that you have been enlightened by this documentary. However, please take into consideration that the person in charge of this movie is a black man and unfortunately, judging by his other works, does not have the best interests of black women at heart. I will admit that I have not seen this movie but I can tell from the trailer that Rock sought to make black women look like self hating fools. Although, you were very subtle and kind in your analysis, I can tell that you and many others have come away with the same conclusions.
    It was very disingenuous for Rock to imply that bw put super concentrated caustic soda directly onto our scalps. Relaxers are supposed to go on the hair only and if you have a good hairstylist it will not get on your scalp. I got perms for years before I went natural and once I found the right hairdressers, I rarely felt any kind of burning from the relaxer and only then was it very slight.
    It is also not true that you cannot touch a weave when it is on someone’s head. If this is information that came from the documentary then once again, Rock was being misleading and duplicitous. Please do not take everything that you saw in this “documentary” to heart. It gets very tiring having to undo the damage that black men do when they try and “explain” black women to the world. Black women can speak for ourselves and we don’t need them making “documentaries” on our behalves. I wrote an article about this movie a few months back. Here is the link:

    I would love for you to read it and tell me what you think.

  7. says

    It’s true that black women have been sold some terrible products in the past, but things are changing as awareness grows.
    Nowhere more so than in Brazil, where Keratin on black hair is often preferred to harsher relaxing chemicals.
    The use of Brazilian Blowout on black hair, the Keratin straightening system, known as Escova Progressiva in Beazil, has become really popular. Even though it can take more than a single treatment for a truly ‘relaxed’ look, people prefer it because it doesn’t kill the hair and prevent it growing.

  8. says

    Here in Brazil the use of Keratin on black hair is hugely popular, as it’s kinder than traditional chemical straighteners.
    And the Brazilian Blowout on black hair is every bit as effective as it is on caucasian hair, although it may take a second application to achieve a truly straight finish.

  9. says

    As a specialist in African american hair care, I would recommend against tight weaves, as it can lead to different types of alopeica which is a hair loss disease. I recommend using a natural keratin based product, and integrate natural hair extensions for an amazingly affordable and stable look.

  10. says

    The story goes back to the period of servant trade. Garrett Augustus Morgan, the seventh of the eleven young children of former slaves, was initially the first one to learn about lye’s effect on hair. In 1910, while working on a sewing machine shop, in an attempt to find a lubricating liquid, he easily wiped his hands (covered with lye) on a wool towel. The following day he found the woolly texture of the cloth smoothed out. Next, he experimented using an Airedale dog recognized for its curly hair. The formula had the same effect on the dog’s hair. As a final point, he experimented with his hair and once more, reaped the same result. Taking into consideration all these, Morgan modified his lubricating liquid and called it a ‘hair refining cream’. After that was born, the contemporary day hair relaxer.

  11. says

    LOL. The trailer looks hilarious. Chris Rock is doing this so it has to be funny. I can’t wait to see this. Even though this may be funny, I think it will open up some eyes as well as raise some questions.

  12. says

    I think this is very good movie exposing the burden imposed by the society on professionalism. I thin black community has been forced to modify the hair, so that they don’t look so different from their peers. Many people overlook the process of choosing the best hair relaxer for their hair and end of having terrible side effects. I had noticed some of my clients wanting to go natural and within a months time they come back to relax their hair because they have an interview. People are becoming more self aware of the issues the relaxers are causing and looking for alternatives. Sadly, there isn’t one yet apart from using flat irons. But, it is time consuming for people with busy lifestyle.

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