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Straight and kinky talk with Mr. Rock

In the past, Chris Rock has joked about how he is determined to keep his young daughters “off the pole,” or away from working in strip clubs. But in his new film, “Good Hair,” he talks of a moment that caused him a different type of fatherly concern.

Said Rock, “One day, one of my daughters came to me crying and saying, ‘Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?’ ”

The question reignited interest in an idea that had struck Rock about 15 years ago when he attended a convention in Atlanta revolving around black hair fashions and the extreme lengths African American women with kinky hair go to to obtain “good” or straight hair similar to that of white women.

“I instantly thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s a movie in this,’ ” Rock explained in a recent interview.

He’s finally realized that vision with “Good Hair,” a feature documentary that dives headfirst into what many black people feel is a delicate -- even taboo -- subject.

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Utilizing his man-among-the people observational approach that he employed on his former HBO talk show and in his Oscar hosting gig, Rock visits beauty salons and barber shops, hair manufacturers and wig merchants, exploring how the preoccupation with so-called good hair has affected the image, self-esteem, sexual relations and even pocketbooks of black people, especially females.

The mystique surrounding “good” versus kinky hair on blacks has long been a pop-culture touchstone. In his 1988 film “School Daze,” Spike Lee staged an elaborate musical production number in a beauty salon where two warring female college cliques -- the “Wannabes” and the “Jigaboos” -- battled over “Good and Bad Hair.”

A pivotal scene in the 2006 interracial romantic comedy “Something New” concerns a white landscaper (Simon Baker) who questions a black lawyer (Sanaa Lathan) about her weave after their first night together. And Tyra Banks reignited the subject last month in the season premiere of her syndicated talk show when she appeared without the wigs or weaves she has worn through most of her career as a model and celebrity.

“Good Hair” does more than simply provide a social and cultural examination of black hair. It also provides Rock with a film vehicle that effectively showcases his comic prowess, a goal that has proved largely elusive in films such as “I Think I Love My Wife,” “Down to Earth” and “Bad Company.” Interacting with salon customers, hair dealers and industry executives presents him as a more compelling film presence than his fictional personas.

“I hope people see that I can be funny in a movie,” he said with a knowing chuckle. He is encouraged by the response of preview audiences, which he has gauged through post-screening visits to the bathroom. “I’ve hid in stalls so I can hear what people say after the movie,” he said, talking at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I’ve been to men’s and women’s bathrooms. People seem to really like it.”

The documentary, directed by Jeff Stilson, has already been greeted with accolades -- it won the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was featured at the Toronto International Film Festival. Presented by HBO Films and distributed by Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment, it is being rolled out more like a mainstream movie than an art house release, launching in multiple theaters in five major markets, including Los Angeles, on Friday before opening nationwide on Oct. 23.

Spiced with interviews with Ice-T, the rap duo Salt-N-Pepa, Maya Angelou and the Rev. Al Sharpton and other notables, Rock exposes how the multimillion-dollar black hair industry is controlled primarily by whites and Asians, and he travels to India, where women sacrifice their hair in religious ceremonies at temples, unaware that their silk-like offerings are recycled and processed as wigs, weaves and extensions that can be sold for up to thousands of dollars in black hair salons.

Black men are also given their due, sounding off with complaints about how they are forbidden to touch their lovers’ hair. Actress Nia Long provides some strikingly candid moments with her discussion of “weave sex.”

Long, who has worn weaves and wigs in many of her films, including “Are We There Yet?” and “Big Momma’s House,” believes “Good Hair” will break down walls, even among blacks.

“Hair is such a taboo subject in the black community,” Long said. “In our culture, hair that is kinky or nappy is considered bad hair.”

She added, “And I know personally how important hair on black women in show business is. A woman with a short Afro will not get hired to play a glamorous leading woman. When you look at beauty standards, there are far fewer African American images we see that are considered beautiful.”

Highlighted in the film is an outrageous showdown between four flamboyant stylists -- including one who is a white man -- at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, the Atlanta-based annual gathering (essentially the Woodstock of black hair) that attracts more than 100,000 attendees. Dancers, swimming hair-cutters, even marching bands get into the act.

As with the man-on-the-street segments on his HBO series, Rock comes across as a fascinated, non-judgmental tour guide, letting his subjects do most of the heavy lifting while he reacts with a telling look or pointed remark. “By being a comedian,” he explains, “people think they know me, so they talk to me, they just blab.”

Raven-Symone (“That’s So Raven,” “The Cosby Show”), who is interviewed in the film, was grateful that Rock approached the project with candor: “It shows all the things we have to go through to be beautiful. I hope this takes away the taboo of talking about it.”

The actress, who got a fresh weave for her interview, added: “I love talking about my different weaves. They keep my real hair safe, and I can put it in any style I want.”

While “Good Hair” is almost exclusively about black people, Rock believes it will have crossover appeal.

“This movie is like James Brown,” he said, smiling. “You can’t get much blacker than James Brown. There’s not a crossover bone in his body, but he’s for everybody. What’s blacker than Snoop Dogg? But he’s the biggest rapper in the world. This movie is really, really black, but it’s for everyone.”

Long said she hopes the film erases the stigma surrounding black hair: “The truth is, all hair is good hair. That is the most important message of this piece. As long as you feel good about yourself, guess what? You have good hair.”

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greg.braxton@latimes.com


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