Hair-Raising Documentary Raises Hair Discussion

What does it mean to have good hair? Prompted by this question, comedian Chris Rock created a documentary exploring the world of hair in the African-American community. Good Hair screened in McDaniel Lounge on Feb. 10, followed by a panel discussion featuring Debbi Johnson-Ross, professor of political science currently on sabbatical and Richard Smith, assistant professor of sociology. Senior Maurice Paul and sophomore Alexaundria Leonard were also part of the panel.

The Black Student Union and Africa’s Legacy helped host the screening. In addition, the Honors Program and the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs helped with this event.

The film followed four competitors in the Bronner Brothers hair expo, a convention which also hosts hundreds of businesses involved in the world of black hair. Rock also talked to several prominent black celebrities about their hair, from author Maya Angelou to rapper Eve to activist Al Sharpton. Rock mainly explored the billion-dollar industry of relaxers and weaves, which can cause chemical burns if done incorrectly, finding that children as young as three years old have gotten relaxers.

Some students in the discussion afterward noted that the film neglected to go into other popular black hairstyles, such as dreadlocks and box braids, which neglects a significant portion of people in the black community.

English professor Dr. Mary Bendel-Simso, who is currently teaching an SIS about hair, commented that “Chris Rock is primarily an entertainer rather than an educator,” and as such, Good Hair “is more ‘infotainment’ than documentary, with certain gaps and a political stance that doesn’t fully represent the historical context of black hair.” Bendel-Simso stated that this is why she has a “love-hate relationship with the film,” and did not want to screen the movie without having a panel discussion to follow.

Each panel member discussed their own experiences and relationships to their hair – even Professor Smith, who, perhaps ironically, is bald.

“Professors Debbi Johnson-Ross and Richard Smith were their usual intelligent and inspiring selves, but the student panel members — Alexaundria Leonard and Maurice Paul — were also incredibly thoughtful and intelligent and articulate,” Bendel-Simso said of the discussion.

Bendel-Simso also added that she was impressed by Leonard’s final remarks in which she plugged some upcoming ODMA events and encouraged all to keep the conversations about good hair and other racial topics going. Said Bendel-Simso, “It made me remember and appreciate that liberal arts colleges, and McDaniel in particular, are not just places that change lives but ones that shape minds and relationships.”