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October 9, 2009

Chris Rock talks Hair, there and everywhere

Comedian Chris Rock’s “passion project,” Good Hair, is a comedy-documentary that takes a closer look at a lucrative industry producing billions of dollars every year--African American hairstyles. At a lively round table session, the Maroon sat down with Rock, producer Nelson George, and four other newspapers from regional colleges to discuss Rock’s experiences with researching the source material, social change via hairstyle, and CNN correspondent Soledad O’Brien.

CM: What made you focus on "good hair" out of all the other issues in the black community?

Chris Rock: I dunno, just, um this was what I was interested in. I think in 1991 I was recording an album in Atlanta, I was trying to talk to some girl who was modeling at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show. She was a hair model, and she invited me to the show and I went and it just blew my mind. And from that moment on I wanted to make a movie about the Bronner Brothers [a prominent African American beauty line] show. But in 1991 I wasn’t really famous, and they weren’t really making movies like that. We’re talking before reality television, before Borat, Michael Moore hadn’t even done a big hit yet, so it was one of these “tupid ideas” at that time. Then you go on, 17 years later, I had daughters, and they’re talking about their hair, and I was like, ooh, tick off that idea, yeah. It’s weird…it’s been on my bulletin board forever - I keep a bulletin board in my office, for all these “dream projects”, things I wanna do – it’s actually been on my bulletin board for years – I should probably take it down this week.

CM: So this was on your board as a Bronner Bros. documentary?

CR: Yeah.

CM: So, when you first conceived of this project as such, were you just gonna kinda make fun of the entire scenario, or what was your idea before it became Good Hair?

CR: Naw I’m never gonna make--I don’t think you can do a movie--an hour and a half of making fun of anybody. That’s like club comic stuff. A club comic can just make fun of people because the club guy’s only up there for ten minutes, but you can’t play Madison Square Garden and make fun of people for two hours (laughs). It just doesn’t sustain. I’m a big Michael Moore fan, I’m a big fan of documentary filmmaking in general. When I did my old show we used to have this saying, "Anytime you write in comedy, if it’s funny play it straight; if it’s straight play it funny." And you know, people with helicopters in their hair need to be taken serious, if you really want to get the comedy out of it.

CM: You said in your movie how your daughter came up to you crying and asked “Why don’t I have good hair?” What was your initial reaction to that?

CR: You know, when you’re parents, let’s say the kid falls, and the kid wasn’t even that hurt, but the reaction of the parent makes the kid think “I should cry now?” So you have to watch out not to react too big – and it’s the same thing when the kids say stuff. You can’t react. The more you react the more it’s an issue. So when my daughter did say something about her hair, I kind of just played it off, gave her a “Oh come on. I love yo hair.” I kept it moving, because if I’d stopped she’d have a complex about her hair. You know, kids say the darndest things. My youngest daughter says, “I’m gonna murder you.” Murder? You’re five years old! You know, you gotta just let it go. If you just, “Eh, no come on, stop with the murder. …STOP IT WITH THE MURDER.” Because if you make it into too big a deal, you know, she’s gonna… then there’s really going to be an issue [laughs].

CM: Would you classify the film as a comedy or a documentary?

CR: Everything I do is a comedy. If you found out I had pancreatic cancer tomorrow I’ma figure out how to have the funniest pancreatic cancer you’d ever seen. I am a comedian. To the death! I represent comedy To The Death! [Laugh]

CM: What was the least expected thing you found while making the movie?

CR: The money aspect was, you know…

Q: 9 billion dollars?

CR: Well that – that just makes sense when you finally – you know most black women have straightened hair, so yeah I guess it should be worth 9 billion dollars [laughs]. Yeah, should be an about 9 billion dollar industry. Just how much money women that don’t have money – you know, everyone is spending, you know Beyonce spends five grand to go to the MTV awards, or the Grammys. You didn’t know Kiki was spending five grand to go work at AT&T or something. That was like, mind-blowing. Especially when you know going to some of these places--you’re in Harlem, looking out through your car, it’s Harlem, and it’s poverty all around, and people are still spending thousands of dollars for a weave in this place. When you’re next to abandoned buildings and stuff, it’s kinda like jarring.

CM: One of the parts that was really intriguing was when you went to India, and finding that there’re all these people who’ve basically given up their hair for religious purposes, but in fact their hair is in a way just feeding a form of consumerism, and you mentioned like with Michael Moore and with Borat, a lot of documentaries and documentary-style films now sort of have to have a sort of social message or criticism that swings one way. But it seems to me that whether it’s intentional or not, you’re sidestepping or avoiding it. How much do you try to avoid such criticism? That’s what I think I like about – the reason I like movies is because they don’t just try to sit there and just present something.

CR: Um, you know… A), I’m a guy. Just as a guy, you can’t – I can’t – the only thing I’ll judge in the movie is that I don’t think kids should have perms. I think this kiddie perm thing is wrong. But I can’t sit here and tell grown women what to do with their hair… it would just be wrong to, you know, it would be just my opinion - it would just be wrong. I don’t think that’s a good movie. This is the first movie about this topic, or first big movie, whatever you want to call it, about this topic. So it’s more important for people to learn about it. Somebody else will make another hair movie down the line. And they’ll have an opinion. One way or the other. There’re gonna be more hair movies. I’m sure CNN’s gonna do a hair thing. Like, “Soledad O’Brien gets down to the nitty-gritty. Dreadlock. Black America 5 – the Dreadlock edition.”

CM: So were you expecting a response, then, out of people trying to change that whole issue of “good hair”, like maybe even starting with like your wife or your female celebrity friends, because – we have to be real about it – the reason why it’s perpetuating is because of a lot of media influence by female celebrities. …are you trying to start a change or a movement away from the whole “good hair” thing?

CR: No, I’m not trying to start a change of any sort. I’m trying to make a funny movie that’s entertaining and thought-provoking, but you know, “This movie will change hair the same way ‘We Are The World’ got rid of world hunger” – that’s just not gonna happen. It’s never happened. Movies don’t do that. They just make the good times and the bad times in your life, you know, better.

CM: So would you want to change that?

CR: Well – I hope my daughters will never have like burnt-out scalps and all that, but what the rest of the world wants to do to their hair is just not for me to say. Do what you wanna do with your hair, hey, whatever’s making you feel good with your hair is quite alright with me. You gonna shave it off, whatever. I’m not--I dunno, I’m just--I don’t think I got a place.

CM: So you’re not saying it’s a social problem then?

CR: You know, no healthcare is a social problem. Children born out of – you know, really young mothers that can’t take care of them is a social problem. This is an interesting issue. I wouldn’t call it a social problem.

CM: I mean as a psycological problem.

CR: If you make it psychological! Each one of us is a person, you know. I’ve actually had relaxant in my hair. I’ve had a Jheri curl, you know, whatever.

CM: I was just going to ask, who were your favourites of all the interviews that you did, the more interesting ones.

CR: On camera, probably Nia. Nia’s is really good on camera. [Al] Sharpton’s great too. But while I was doing the movie Maya Angelou was just great, because she was just telling me stories about all these old black celebrities, and she said everybody had burn marks around their neck and ears from the relaxant. She said you can’t see from the pictures but they all have scabs. So that was kinda interesting.

CM: Going off of that, how did you get so many different people to talk about the subject so frankly? It’s a pretty personal subject; how did you approach them and get them to be involved with the movie?

CR: I threw a wide net out there. Being who I am helps, you know, I have a TV show, I put a lot of people on the show, some of them came back and did the documentary. I’ve directed a couple of movies. So some people were just, “hey,” you know, “it’s not gonna hurt to help this guy out, [laughs] to come and talk to this guy, so that helped a lot. I got turned down, there were more ‘no’s than ‘yes’s. Sometimes you have to pursue it, um, we did interviews at the VH1 Hip-Hop Honours, and we had the great idea of setting up a booth at--you know, because there’s so much press there anyway. And we ended up--you know, that’s where we got Ice T. That’s where we got Salt-N-Pepa. T-Pain. So we locked up that – you know, just being in the right places at the right time.

CM: So did they interact with you as “Chris Rock the Superstar” or as some guy doing research?

CR: It’s weird – the topic – oh no, “Chris Rock the superstar” – is a topic in which all that other famous crap just goes out the window. And when you interview the women – or even the guys – everybody just immediately is right back in their kitchen. Especially the girls, when they think about it, they go right to the kitchen with their mother doing their hair and the guys immediately think about their mothers and aunties and hot combs and the smells. So there’s something about the topic that just strips all that stuff away.

CM: What influences your style in terms of documentary filmmaking? Who in particular do you start at look at?

CR: Michael Moore is the dean of all of this stuff. Some of it can be heavy-handed sometimes, yes, but the way he not just tells a serious story [but] with humour has really never been done before. And you gotta give it up to him. I liked “Supersize Me”, I thought Morgan Spurlock did an excellent job, in taking something that was a serious topic and adding--because you know you can get more done with humor. More people hear it if it’s funny. Without the humour it’s medicine. And nobody wants medicine. Everybody turns their heads from medicine. Even when you’re sick you turn from medicine.

CM: So, you went to India to shoot a segment of the documentary, what do you think of the international perspective on the documentary? Like from their point of view, how they see what’s going on?

CR: They don’t even know what’s going on. That was the weird thing about India. They know they cut their hair, and… I guess they know the temple does something with it, I don’t think they know that their hair gets $3000 – I mean, you’re talking about some of the poorest people in the world. They don’t even – it would be like if you woke up tomorrow and somebody told you they’ve been selling your toenails for 20 years. “What?!” It wouldn’t even make sense to you. You won’t even pay attention, you keep going on about your day. “Yeah somebody just told me they sold my toenails for five grand a pop. Ha ha ha.” It’s hard for you completely to think that all their bills could be paid every year.

Nelson George: You guys have to know that the temple does use the money for hospitals, charity. the money doesn’t go to--

CR: To some degree. Allegedly. [Laughs]

NG: Well those hospitals and schools that we saw on the temple grounds. The money did go into those.

CR: Yeah yeah yeah. I mean, even the Vatican – the Vatican for an eight to ten mile radius is about as clean as this hotel room. It’s literally – you can see the money. As far as the eye can see. Ten feet from that temple, it’s the dirtiest place in the world. It’s a level of poverty you’ve never seen. It’s indescribable.

CM: The India angle, did you have any trouble getting access to it, did anyone give you hassle…

CR: Yeah I mean there was some –

NG: Yeah there were some issues.

CR:Yeah there definitely were some issues. But we didn’t put it in the film. They tried to take the film and all that stuff.

NG: They’re very sensitive about what happened with the money and the hair.

CR: Yeah so that’s the one thing that we didn’t do? Because that’s in every Michael Moore movie. The scene with the guy [going] “Hey cut that camera off.” [Laughs] And he keeps the camera on, every movie. [laughs] We decided not to do that.

CM: Did you encounter racism when you were there? Because I know that throughout the movie there’re some racist comments, just ignorant comments, like people thought you would catch sickle cell anaemia from having black hair, which is absurd. Did you encounter that a lot?

CR: There’re always ignorant comments. I was – before I call something racist I always try to figure out, was it deliberate. Were you trying to hurt me. If you’re just dumb, I can’t help that – I’m not gonna hate you for being dumb. I’m gonna hate you for being mean. I’ma pity you for being dumb. You know, every day somebody says something stupid. But you know, keep it moving.

CM: Do you consider those two different? Like is there racism, which is intent, and then dumb, which is just ignorance?

CR: I mean sometimes people just say things! They literally were not meaning to hurt you. It’s just – they didn’t know any better. And I mean they should be corrected. Not saying that you shouldn’t do that. But taking people’s heads off for honest mistakes is not gonna solve anything. It’s not gonna get rid of their – you know, they didn’t even start off as a rapist – hey, I like black people too – I get yelled at so loud [laughs]. You know, people make mistakes. They do.

CM: If you were to make another documentary film, what other issues would you like to explore?

CR: I don’t know! I don’t know what is [as] good as the hair, you know, that there’s something funny about. Hair is a great one, because it’s political and it’s sexy. It’s got a bit of sex in it. You know, guys will just go see it because there’re hot girls in it. And still get all the knowledge, and still like accidentally learn something from it. So I don’t know what the next one is going to be about. I’m sure there’s gonna be a next one because everybody keeps asking for one. [Laughs] I feel like at some point Nelson’s gonna be like, [imitates George] “Hey man. You gotta do one. You gotta. Man. You’re gonna just sit there? They’re not giving money out to everybody.”

CM: Is that how this movie came about?

CR: No, no. This was a passion project. I always wanted to do this movie. I don’t wanna do another one just because this one…works. We’re artists.