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Roots & Rebellions: Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’

In documentary, film on December 1, 2009 at 8:29 pm

By Troy Jeffrey Allen

Is it just me or has there been an increased interest in the inner-workings of the African-American community…say since January 21st of 2009? Well, black IS the new black and Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair is at the root of the media’s growing obsession.

Rock’s documentary brings him to the Brooner Brothers annual hair show in Atlanta, Georgia. The fabulous hair-off raises questions about why women substitute their natural mane for extensions and weaves. The documentary supplements the Atlanta competition with Rock pushing forward on the origin of hair extensions. In between, we get revealing interviews with a range of black female celebrities, from video vixen Meagan Good to national treasure Maya Angelou.

By the time the film arrives in India, Rock begins to unravel the wicked web of weaves, describing the religious process that demands Indian women of all ages to crop their hair. The belief is that their shaved locks will begin its’ ascension on the stairway to heaven. Instead, it ends up in Crenshaw, selling anywhere from $1,000 to $3,500.

Since the wide release of Good Hair, there has been a collective teeth-sucking, a swell of disapproval, specifically, from women in the black community. From online message boards to daytime television, Good Hair has been labeled an attack on the black female, and has been accused of exposing aspects of the culture that should remain secret. But is there really any secret? Of course not. For anyone who has walked into a CVS and seen hair extensions for a $1.99 there is no secret, just passive-aggressive mockery.  The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the controversy the film has elicited has raised a greater issue in the black community, and that is the issue of cultural denial.

The very notion that Good Hair is revealing trade secrets proves that Chris Rock’s joke is on us. It reminds me of a similar situation with Dr. Bill Cosby. In 2004, at a commemoration for Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby criticized the black community for not valuing education, their disinterest in black history, and their abuse of the English language (among other things). Heathcliff came under fire for putting the black culture’s shortcomings into the public eye. While, Cosby’s rant (and it was a rant) was more entertaining than helpful, the attitude that these things cannot be said in public is troubling. It also shows that we as a culture still assume the role of the silenced slave, even when it isn’t coming from the outside.

It would have been easy for the documentary to state flat out that natural hair is the best way to be; instead, Chris Rock lets women speak on the subject. The film’s opinions come from an array of black women and, not surprisingly, they all seem to know something is wrong with it.  Yes, beauty is only skin deep. However, a documentary like Good Hair tackles at a 21st century reality: augmenting your features to appear more acceptable (surgically or with hair extensions) has become the norm.

Directed by Jeff Stilson; Written by Chris Rock, Paul Marchand, Chuck Sklar, Lance Crouther, and Jeff Stilson.


Afghan Star: Mass Media versus Islamic Tradition

In film on July 1, 2009 at 11:13 pm


BY Troy Jeffrey Allen

Early in Afghan Stara young Pashtun boy briskly observes (despite missing an eye) that “If there were no songs…the world would be silent.” It is moments like these, little snippets of what happens when art influences life, that allow you to appreciate Afghan Star, despite its’ lack of delivery.

The documentary takes place in present day Afghanistan and while civil unrest and Taliban rule are not far behind, pop culture has returned to the populace—specifically, in the form of an ongoing television show called Afghan Star. The show follows the American Idol-model, pitting vocalist (and the unabashed) in a weekly sing-off. The program is a hit across the country, as it momentarily blurs lines of self-segregation, renovates the zeitgeist, and takes advantage of more modern forms of telecommunications (you have to cast your vote for each contestant via cell phone).

But what happens when mass media begins to clash with Islamic tradition? It’s a question that Setara Hussainzada, a contestant from Herat, has to answer. Outspoken and determined to become a household name, Setara is quick to shed her burqa, expose her hair and dance on stage for the cameras. Her actions, meant to inspire individualism, encourage only death threats and public disapproval from religious scholars and fellow competitors (specifically, Lema Sehar, who quietly uses her ties to the Taliban to advance as a finalist). 

It’s Setara’s real-life drama that proves to be the most interesting aspect of Afghan Star. Unfortunately, it’s presented as more of an aside than a personal crisis.

Director Havanah Marking sought out to disprove media stereotypes of Afghanistan while making this documentary. She has done that successfully but shows hesitance when pointing the camera on her subjects. Outside of Setara, none of the other contestants seem to have much of a back-story. Rafi Naabzada is just a pretty boy that can kind of sing, Lema Sehar is the obdurate bitch, and Hammeed Sakhizada is…just there.

Marking seems to think that having a camera in the room is enough to pull you into her documentary, but maybe she should have taken a queue from the same media she dejects  and delved deeper for drama (Then again, maybe that is a cultural contrast).

While the director does address the unavoidable issues of inequality, generational discord, American stereotypes, and democratic voting in a non-democratic country, there is a much larger over-arching idea at the heart of Afghan Star’s success that she seems to gloss over. When even in the face of guerilla warfare, foreign invaders, and civil war,  music (and other art forms) can certainly overcome —when does it go too far? When does pop culture stop becoming art and start to feel like corruption? It’s a question not lost on the Afghan Star documentary, but, like competitor Lema Sehar, the film feels more concerned with facts than ideology.

How the Movies Made a President

In film on January 18, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Sidney Poitier with Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Everett Collection, courtesy of The New York Times)

Sidney Poitier with Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Everett Collection, courtesy of The New York Times)


In today’s New York Times, film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott argued that “Evolving cinematic roles have prepared America to have a black man in charge.”  In light of  the many films–annoyingly too many–that confine black men to stereotypical, demeaning, and one-dimensional roles (the “yes massuh” slave, glorified gangsters, absent fathers, rappers with nothing else to talk about than rims and bling, oh and the latest trend of the fat-suit wearing, cross-dressing black comedian), my first response to Dargis and Scott was “Have you two missed the last 50 years of cinematic history?”

Well, clearly they think not. With examples like the presidencies of James Earl Jones in “The Man,” Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact,” Chris Rock in “Head of State” and Dennis Haysbert in “24”, Dargis and Scott argue that Americans were being prepared for “Mr. Obama’s transformative breakthrough before it occurred.”  

Dargis & Scott: “Make no mistake: Hollywood’s historic refusal to embrace black artists and its insistence on racist caricatures and stereotypes linger to this day. Yet in the past 50 years — or, to be precise, in the 47 years since Mr. Obama was born — black men in the movies have traveled from the ghetto to the boardroom, from supporting roles in kitchens, liveries and social-problem movies to the rarefied summit of the Hollywood A-list. In those years the movies have helped images of black popular life emerge from behind what W. E. B. Du Bois called “a vast veil,” creating public spaces in which we could glimpse who we are and what we might become.”

As much as I agree that there have been some cinematic roles that have broken down and broken through barriers for black men, we have to keep in mind that the roles (“savior, counselor, patriarch, oracle, avenger, role model, hero”) played by these men are fictional – their successes and acceptance in America carefully crafted and plotted.

President Obama doesn’t have that luxury. He has no script.   – Grace A. Ali 

Read more at The New York Times





“Seven Pounds” Too Heavy

In film on December 30, 2008 at 12:01 am


Troy Jeffrey Allen of the Typographic Era desperately tries to find something nice to say about Will Smith’s latest, “Seven Pounds.” The best he could muster, “Smith doesn’t belong here” – in his own film that is. 

Will Smith is starting to become a deal breaker for me. Now don’t get me wrong…I like Smith. During the course of his charismatic career, he’s managed to surpass royal freshness and Hollywood stereotypes. However, like any marquee player, he also tends to force himself onto roles (Don’t believe me?  Check out   “I Am Legend,” “Ali,” and “I Robot” ).  His presence can weigh a movie down. Case in point, “Seven Pounds.” 

Smith plays IRS auditor Ben Thomas, who carries a secret. But what has compelled him to help out seven people less fortunate than himself? I’m willing to bet the frequent flashbacks of Smith kissing his wife and cars tumbling on winding roads have something to do with it.

It’s almost ridiculous how heavy handed this film gets at times. You’ve already had your fill of obscured details and heart-puppetry when Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) shows interest in Ben. She’s his newest acquisition to pay it forward. Emily has a cardiac problem, and just in case you didn’t get that the first time, so does her dog…and just in case you need another depressing reminder, she wears a charm bracelet of a heart on her wrist.

Director Gabrielle Muccino (who must not have seen “Crash,” “Babel,” or “21 Grams”) demands you to notice how serious “Seven Pounds” is. He wants you to believe every performance is award-worthy, especially Smith’s. Ironically, it’s Will Smith’s presence that burdens an already trying film. He doesn’t belong here. His acting consists of plenty of depressed, far-away looks cued by soft piano music. It’s such an unabashed call for attention that it almost washes away the pleasant feelings of “Pursuit of Happyness.” 

Slumdog Millionaire

In film on December 12, 2008 at 4:48 pm
hr_slumdog_millionaire_3In his review, Troy Jeffrey Allen of the Typographic Era treats Slumdog Millionaire as this year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life.  

It doesn’t happen often, but once in awhile you hit paydirt at the movies. You realize you’ve been a cynic and someone was going to pull your card. That person is director, Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting, Sunshine). That movie is Slumdog Millionaire. In a season of faux-inspirational films and a President-Elect invoking the potential of the human spirit, this film couldn’t come at a better time.
Slumdog Millionaire falls in the category of Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men–movies that humble the viewer and make you ask obediently for another. The base is largely straight forward, but the energy of the film is unique. Boyle attacks the underdog story instead of directs it. He orchestrates a crime tale, a love story, a familial story, a commentary about the class system in Mumbai, India, and a story of persecution like it was a fist fight. It reminds me alot of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun – a director, going against the grain and wielding an inspirational story like a weapon.
Slumdog Millionaire is about the ideals as much as the story. That’s what makes it so damn interesting. Jamal Malik, a kid from the slums of Mumbai, loses his entire family to selfishness. Chance brings him to the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, (I guess “Who Wants to Win A @$$load of Rupees” doesn’t have the same kick). But is it chance that allows him to answer all the questions correctly or is he cheating? Nobody believes that a “slumdog” can be THAT smart. The local law enforcement gets involved and the day before he’s set to break the show’s record, he’s subjected to torture. What unravels is not just how he answered the questions on the show, but how he answers the big question: “Can money buy you happiness?” It may sound like an Indian regurgitation of Quiz Show, but it’s much more forceful.
Boyle, Loveleen Tandan (co-director), Simon Beaufoy (screenwriter), and an amazing cast of young actors fooled me into thinking Slumdog Millionaire was a biopic. It’s not. The energy is just that palpable, the ambition just that unshakable.