The television behind the bar is showing live coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration, but even as America turns a historical page, Chris Rock has a hard time believing black is the new black.
“I think Indian is the new black,” he says, sitting back on a comfy sofa in a makeshift lounge at the Sundance Film Festival.
The comment makes no sense if you haven’t seen Good Hair, Rock’s new documentary about the tangled issue of tresses, race and the dominant culture’s concept of beauty.
Spurred by a single question raised by his young daughter–“Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?”–Rock goes to the very roots of identity in the film, teasing out a knot of truths about the $9-billion hair product industry aimed specifically at African-Americans.
By far the largest segment of it is hair weaves. People can buy human hair and have it woven into their own to achieve a variety of styles.
But as Rock discovered over the course of his hairy two-year journey, the only hair African-Americans want woven into their own is straight hair. That’s where the Indian reference comes in: More than half of the hair weaves industry is fed by shorn locks from South Asia.
“You know, we live in a world where nobody likes what they look like,” says Rock. “You open a magazine and you’re too fat. People wear contacts, get Botox, nose jobs.
“And every black woman has [hair] relaxer.”
When I challenge him on the generalization, he doesn’t budge.
Then again, digging a hole which he is then forced to crawl out of is part of his comic process.
“I like making people feel uncomfortable, and that’s why I talk about things that are tough to talk about. Even in my standup, I never talk about things that are obviously funny.
“I like to go out there and take on a topic that’s like, ‘Why are you talking about that?’ and then dig myself out of the hole.”
The hole, in Good Hair, is a sink-clogging clump of U.S. racial history. According to Rock’s research, young women believe they won’t be able to get a good job if they don’t apply toxic straightening agents that burn the scalp or forfeit a month’s rent to invest in weaves worth thousands–yes, thousands–of dollars.
“These hair product companies are like Ford and GM. Actually, they’re more like Apple or Microsoft because they’re making a profit,” he says.
“It’s weird, too, because I went to a couple of Obama functions this year and when you get to that expensive part of the party [the VIP area], there would always be a few black couples in there you’d talk to . . . and they were always in the hair business.”
At one time, African-Americans owned and operated the companies making products that relax nappy hair. Yet once the corporate world found out how much money it could make by exploiting people’s insecurities, the largely European-owned beauty industry started acquiring one black-owned business after another.
“It’s the biggest black business,” says Rock. “It’s bigger than music. It’s the biggest black industry there is.”
In the film, this issue is addressed by the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as hair industry insiders who mourn the fact that African-Americans have surrendered the power to define their own esthetic.