Friday, August 20, 2010

Bad Hair?

I just got home from a screening of My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage (site, imdb). I guess my expectations were originally set too high. This is one of those cases where a small independent studio jumps on a great idea, but needs more people and a bigger budget to make it a real success. However, it holds a lot of promise, so I’m expecting improvements before the final cut is released.

From the very beginning, My Nappy Roots appears to be taking sides in the natural-versus-processed debate. However, as it gets further along, it settles into a more educational role. The film focuses on traditional and contemporary hair styles, cultural identity, prevailing attitudes about black hair, and how these are intertwined together. The brief discussion about pre-slave trade African hair was completely new to me, although it made sense that ethnic hair styles, along with music and language, were purposely wiped out to eliminate slaves’ prior identities. Other topics covered include the Indian wig industry and the history of the black hair care industry in America. I was also pleased that Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female millionaire, got some well-deserved attention.*

My Nappy Roots addresses ethnocentricism, politics, and economic rivalry through interviews while maintaining a bit of objectivity. However, there’s a noticeable absence of certain voices (racially mixed individuals, blacks from the rest of the world, and the “white” hair care corporations). It also troubled me that one interviewee, in reaction against Korean competition, declared that the only thing blacks had economically was the hair industry. Rather than considering that as a reason to support black-owned businesses, it made me wonder if this attitude is keeping black entrepreneurs from pursuing other opportunities with broader markets. Those failing in the hair business should be encouraged to look for a comparative advantage in another industry.

*The Association for the Study of African American Life and History featured her in their 2010 Black History Kit that focused on economics and entrepreneurship, hence my recent familiarity with Walker’s life.