Film Encourages Africans and African Americans to Cultivate Natural Hair 



The city of Austin in the United States has hosted an international film festival at which several works with Africa-related themes were shown. One that received a lot of attention was a documentary produced by an African-American filmmaker, Michelle Farris-Lewis. She uses her film to celebrate people of African descent who’ve refused to straighten their hair in favor of “going natural.”  In the second of a five-part series focusing on Africa-related films that were shown at the Austin festival, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on Farris-Lewis’s film, entitled “New Growth.”

Michelle Farris-Lewis is a native of South Park, an inner city area of Houston, Texas, where she filmed the documentary that received an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience in Austin.

But Farris-Lewis says she filmed “New Growth” with Africans in mind as well.

“So many Africans think the way that we African-Americans do: That they must have nice, straight hair in order to be accepted, in order to get good jobs,” she explains. 

“The film is actually comprised of what I call hair stories, of women who have taken this journey from relaxed (straight) hair to natural hair – that’s one part of the film. And then the other is the opinions of other people, like men – I make sure I go to barbershops and I get their opinions and the way they feel about hair, because a lot of the things that we do to our hair as women has to do with the men in our lives.”

In one of the most striking scenes in the film, shot in a Houston barbershop packed with men – and testosterone – a young man having his hair cut reflects: “As far as I’ve always been brought up and what we’ve been taught, is that the only good hair is hair you can run your fingers through. If you can’t run your fingers through it, then it ain’t good hair.” 

“Comments such as this,” says Farris-Lewis, “reveal the social conditioning that black people all over the world have undergone…. There’s a ‘good hair, bad hair’ thing going on in black communities. It’s like if you have the wavy, close to Caucasian, European hair – that it’s good. And as close as it is to African – the kinky – then it’s bad.”  

During another scene in the film, an elderly man emotionally laments that black people have lost their “respect” by straightening their hair.

“Some of you all remember that, back in the day, when we were brothers and sisters – soul people – we were wearing it natural! People respected us! The Hispanics respected us, the Asians respected us; the white man respected us! We don’t have that respect left!” he exclaims, to the agreement of the men around him.   

“New Growth” includes footage of women and men, who, according to a pamphlet promoting the film, are “reveling in their own process – a process that does not involve chemicals or complex salon treatments, but a processing of the mind that allows one the freedom to embrace who they are naturally and to be proud.”

What happens in America is the same as what happens in Africa, says Farris-Lewis: “Black people putting dangerous, damaging products on their hair to straighten it, to look white, because society makes them feel inferior, makes them feel that their natural hair is dirty. And they’re willing to go through great pain, and spend a lot of money, so that they feel they fit into society by means of their hairstyles.” 

A “personal and traumatic experience” spurred Farris-Lewis to produce “New Growth.” 

“I was inspired to do the film because I put a relaxer (chemical) on my daughter’s hair when she was six years old, and it all fell out. As a result, to make her feel comfortable, I ended up cutting all of my relaxed hair off and going natural with her. And it was a journey that took me all the way to here (to the Austin Women’s Film Festival).”

She says the “dangerous” standards of beauty that are thrust upon people – and especially women – in America, are disseminated through various media – like Hollywood and music videos – and then spread to Africa.

“African women see these images, and they aspire to copy Americans. They put all sorts of damaging products on their hair. They begin to believe, like we do here, that women can only be beautiful if they have long, shiny, flowing hair.”

In “New Growth,” Farris-Lewis also interviews African-American women who are refusing to “go natural” and are insisting that they have a right to straighten their hair.

In a revealing comment in the film, a woman with straight hair provides viewers with some of the psychology and societal standards behind her decision to continually relax her curly hair: “When I do get my hair straightened like this, the first thing that a lot of people say is: Oh, your hair is so pretty…. Instead of every day when I wear it out and bushy and curly, I never get any compliments.” 

Farris-Lewis repeatedly emphasizes that her film is not intended to criticize those women of African descent who choose to straighten their hair. 

“The film is just a celebration of women who have decided: I don’t want to do that anymore; I just want to be me and be what God made me. It’s not really to condemn anyone that has chosen to relax their hair, but just to celebrate those who’ve chosen not to,” she says.

Farris-Lewis also insists that she’s not advocating a “return to the 1970’s, with massive Afro hairdos or that everyone must look like Bob Marley…. Natural doesn’t have to be Afro, huge hair. Natural is just something without chemicals – many black men that you see, they have natural hair; it’s really the women who struggle with the idea of processing their hair, because we’re taught that we have to have this long hair, we have to have this straight, flowing hair. Natural means you have chosen not to chemically process your hair. And black hair in its natural state is not straight.”

Despite her attempts to “celebrate rather than condemn” with her documentary, Farris-Lewis clearly sees the film and the issues it raises as a struggle. “How many black actresses and black singers and successful black businesspeople do we see out there these days with natural hair?” she asks rhetorically, adding: “Ninety-nine percent of my friends have permed hair, so I’m in no way preaching!”

Farris-Lewis is working on a number of future projects, and says she’d like to hear specifically from women in Africa about their “hair struggles and how they feel about natural hair, and the pressure they’re under to conform to Western standards of beauty.”

Email her at Part of the film can be viewed at      


This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs