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 Newgrowth_thefilm@yahoo.com. Part of the film can be viewed at www.MySpace.com/New_growth