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Good Hair and the Co-Opting of Women’s Voices

October 13, 2009

goodhairOn Sunday night, I saw Good Hair. I’m glad I did — it’s an interesting, funny, informative film. I do agree with the critique that it’s not the place of white audiences to demand that women of color share their stories about their hair, and it is problematic that the film is heavily promoting the involvement of Chris Rock when it’s actually directed by a white man. All that being said, I did believe Rock’s sincerity as he discussed his desire for his daughters to grow up caring about what’s inside of their heads rather than what’s on their heads. That’s an important message for all girls, and if that was Rock’s motivation to produce this documentary, then I’m glad that a film like it exists.

But when I left the theatre, my main reaction was that I wished the documentary had been made by a woman. Given the focus on the experiences of women of color, it struck me that the narrative might have felt more authentic had it been told through a woman’s lens. So I wondered, why hadn’t this film been directed and produced by a woman?

And that was when I learned — it had.

Well, not quite. But close. In 2005, Regina Kimbell directed My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage. Kimbell says that she screened her film for Chris Rock two years ago, and now she’s suing him for copyright infringement.

From MSNBC:

In her lawsuit, Kimbell claims there are over a dozen similarities between her film and Rock’s, including their titles, which she says are opposites on the spectrum of how a person defines black hair.

She also claims both films are “socially and politically conscious”; both films were inspired by the filmmakers’ respective daughters; each film includes interviews with medical professionals — in the case of “Nappy Roots” a doctor was used while “Good Hair” used a dermatologist; both films interviewed hair care pioneers; each film looks at how India is involved in the use of weaves; both films have comedians to add “comic relief”; both have “celebrities tell their own hair stories”; both tour a “manufacturing plant where hair relaxers are made” and more.

Since I haven’t seen My Nappy Roots, I can’t really comment on the similarities between it and Good Hair. But based on the above description and a comparison of the trailers for both films, it sounds like Kimbell has a strong case. While it may be true that an idea for a documentary can’t be infringed upon as easily as a narrative fiction film, the execution and presentation of a documentary certainly can be, and this may very well be a case in which Good Hair took one too many explicit cues from My Nappy Roots.

So why is Rock’s film the one gaining a national audience, while Kimbell’s has never been distributed? I mean, besides the fact that Chris Rock is a celebrity and has the resources to produce and distribute any film he desires. Because I’d really much rather see Kimbell’s take on the issue. While I don’t believe her documentary is necessarily better because she is a woman, I do think there’s something to be said for allowing women to tell their own stories. And even though Good Hair features numerous interviews with women of color, there’s something lacking. It’s told from a distance, because neither Rock nor Jeff Stilson (the film’s director) have experienced anything close to what the interviewees discuss. There’s a constant feeling of mystery, echoed more often than not by Rock’s perplexed facial expressions. Though he cares deeply about his daughters, it’s clear throughout the film that he doesn’t quite understand what they’re going through and what societal pressures they’ll experience as they grow and mature.

The synopsis of Kimbell’s documentary suggests that her work is coming from a far more personal (and, not to mention, a more thoroughly researched and analyzed) place.  While that doesn’t necessarily mean that My Nappy Roots is an objectively better film than Good Hair, it does mean that the film’s perspective is more closely in line with the perspectives of its subjects. And for any documentary to feel authentic and honest, that kind of perspective is critical. Rock’s film may be more entertaining and appeal to a wider audience, but Kimbell’s offers the point of view necessary for real dialogue and learning to take place.

I don’t know whether Rock really plagiarized Kimbell’s film. We might never know. But I do hope that this dispute will bring Kimbell’s film to a larger audience. I have a feeling that the story she presents is the one really worth hearing.

6 Comments
  1. Christine permalink
    October 13, 2009 1:09 pm

    Definitely good points. On the one hand, it would make a lot of sense to see a female director’s take on the subject, since it pertains to women–but then I start to wonder if maybe a man can offer a more objective take on it, since he wouldn’t have experienced firsthand the pressures and industry. That doesn’t strike me as such a bad thing, especially if the males working on the film are really striving to get a range of opinions and stories from female subjects (I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds like that’s a big part of it).

    And I wonder: how does someone claim copyright over a documentary subject if the style is based on facts or history? If two people did two documentaries on Lincoln’s life, for example (which has obviously been done), I can’t imagine one would be able to sue the other for copyright infringement successfully. Then again, I haven’t heard of many examples of that happening. I can’t imagine some of those lawsuit criteria holding up: loads of documentaries are “socially and politically conscious,” for example, and if one similarity is in the titles being “opposites on the spectrum,” then those aren’t similar at all.

  2. October 15, 2009 2:57 am

    Awesome post! Thanks for sharing the information about Kimbell.

  3. October 18, 2009 8:03 am

    Chris Rock’s involvement in this film made me think about the news that Tyler Perry is directing a movie version of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Both are cases of men telling the highly personal stories of women. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as people tell each other’s stories all the time, but in a culture where women and especially WOC lack opportunities to tell their own stories, this becomes highly problematic.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      October 18, 2009 9:08 pm

      I’m glad you brought that up. The really interesting thing about the fact that Tyler Perry is directing For Colored Girls is that the film was originally slated to have a female director (Melissa at Women & Hollywood wrote a great post about it, actually). Which isn’t to say that Perry’s version won’t be good, but it is a problematic situation. I’ve been hesitant to write about Perry’s work, as I’ve never seen any of his films and he does have a huge female fan-base, but I have always wondered about his portrayal of women of color. It’ll be interesting to watch the development of For Colored Girls, for sure.

  4. MyNappyROOTS permalink
    October 19, 2009 1:15 pm

    Thank you for your fair approach in addressing both films and our copyright case. Please visit our Facebook Fan Page http://bit.ly/3NoBVp to get more details about our film and the case. Also see clips of “My Nappy ROOTS” on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/regikim.

    Thanks for your support!
    MyNappyROOTS

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      October 19, 2009 4:12 pm

      Thanks for checking out the post! And thanks for letting us know about the clips on YouTube – I didn’t know about that and definitely want to check them out! Wishing you the best of luck with your film.

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