In the face of the mainstream media's campaign to keep us distracted with the fake news of presidential pardons and the eyewash of budget debates, only independently published mavericks have the courage to cover the story of Samuel Jackson's hair. The actor's many coiffure experiments are everywhere and everywhere unacknowledged, one of the great hidden-in-plain-sight stories of our age.
The web's free-speaking commentators have not been shy in covering the actor's hair changes. "What's up with the gigantic bed-head afro?" Sherri Ferri asks of Jackson's supersized fade in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable "He looks like he was left out overnight during an electric storm." Jackson's hair is listed in the demerits category in Kiss the Curb's One Minute Review of Unbreakable. Of Jackson's orange crewcut in The Negotiator, Spunker comments, "You know something's wrong when you spend a lot of the time staring at Samuel L. Jackson's forehead, trying to figure out if he's wearing a hairpiece." Even Jackson's chrome look in John Singleton's Shaft remake invites commentary; "I was interested to see Mr Jackson's hair credited to Robert Stephenson," writes Louise Keller at a site called Majestic Theatre. "Bald obviously needs special attention!" The Web is dotted with comments on and mini-histories of Jackson's Jerri-Curled homage to El DeBarge in Pulp Fiction, and a search on the phrase "What is up with Samuel L. Jackson's hair" on any of the common search engines will turn up countless movie reviews.
These Jackson hair hawks are unlikely to be pacified by The Caveman's Valentine, Kasi Lemmons's stylishly improbable murder mystery, in which the actor goes through his most sweeping, and physically largest, follicular transfiguration to date. As "Romulus Ledbetter," a paranoid schizophrenic homeless man convinced that he's being watched by an arch-enemy named Stuyvesant from the top of the Chrysler building, Jackson wears a network of dreadlocks that seem remarkably well groomed after years on the street. So vast and imposing are the character's locks that even guardians of the corporate media have at last begun to take notice. "Hairstyle plays a big, big role in any Samuel L. Jackson film," the San Francisco Chronicle's Edward Guthmann begins his review, continuing through a brief history of Jackson 'dos and concluding: "Defining character through coiffure is one of the hallmarks in this man's career."
The performer whose intense work ethic inspired even Leonard Maltin to call him "the tireless Jackson" may well merit the attention. With the possible exception of Gary Oldman that prostheticized Lon Chaney, Sr. of our time no actor goes through a similar range of toupees. But where Oldman appears content to shoulder the light burden of a character actor, Jackson is a leading man. A starring actor might get away with the occasional startling haircut or Braveheart weave, but his real job is to be dependably handsome, more solid and reliable than the role he's playing. Jackson's hair treatments thus serve as a direct challenge to audience expectations, a bold campaign to confront phoniness in the open. Everybody knows what Samuel Jackson looks like, and thus everybody knows that that figure up on the screen is Samuel Jackson wearing a wig! But there's nothing we can do about it: He's up there on a screen and we're down here in our seats. After years of reality programming and docudrama, after decades of actors trying to keep it real, the Fourth Wall is courageously rebuilt.
Implicit in these many manes is, of course, the acknowledgment that black people have relatively high maintenance hair, and an attendant variety of possible styles. The hard feelings excited by any mainstream discussion of African American coiffure stretch back at least to Malcolm X's pained, shame-filled memories of conking, and were raised most recently in the controversy over Carolivia Herron's children's book Nappy Hair. In this context, the blond ponytail of Jackson's Ordell Robbie character is more than just a fashion statement. There is almost an element of mockery in Jackson's coifs not dissimilar to his habit of playing characters with absurd names like "Zeus" and "Jules" and "Romulus," that no white man could get away with. For a man who regularly declares his independence from the Caucasian hierarchies amid which he works even ridiculing the Shaft script doctoring of Richard Price, white America's literary ambassador to the hood each new 'do is an authoritative act. White film fans routinely refer to how "scary" Jackson was in this or that role, a judgment that probably has less to do with Jackson's above-average height or resounding voice than with a belief in black supermen that allows even Cuba Gooding, Jr. an actor about as imposing as Tony Randall to play tough guy parts in film after film.
This is why Jackson is so well-positioned to use hair as a demonstration of personal liberty. Anybody familiar with Herron's book knows that Nappy Hair is a pleasingly uplifting, pride-instilling kids' book, in which an unruly afro is depicted as an act of God, one that "danced right on through all that wimp hair," and "wouldn't stop, wouldn't mix, wouldn't slow down for nobody." If such individualistic approaches are probably good for mental health and self-image, they have been hell on the $250 million market in "ethnic hair care" products ironically, the very market that makes such great Jacksonian headdresses possible. Currently in its third decade of decline at the hands of "natural trends" in African American hair, the industry of relaxers and processes has begun to consume itself: L'Oreal recently acquired market leaders Soft Sheen and Carson, while Albert-Culver now owns Pro Line, the marketers of the Just for Me and Soft & Beautiful brands. This is a loss in mom-and-pop businesses as striking as anything going on among the dotcoms, and even the considerable clout of Samuel Jackson seems to be failing to inject any new life into the market.
But perhaps the most salient feature of Jackson's hair is that, in reality, there is very little of it. Out of either vanity or a need to maintain a mystique, Jackson tends to wear headgear for his public appearances, but it's pretty clear his real-life head is closer to his "Shaft" and "Mace Windu" looks than to the more outrageous styles he has worn over the years. His wigs are not there to fool us any more than a stage Richard III's hump is supposed to fool audiences that the actor playing the part is actually deformed. This is where the real courage of Jackson's styles becomes clear. A decade of blandly convincing digital effects and naturalistic acting styles has turned audiences childishly literal-minded, robbed us of the bracing thrill of the openly artificial. We now demand that everything on the screen be "real," but Jackson's hair remains a self-referential trick, a reminder that everything we're seeing is a put-on for our benefit. (The opposite of this effect can be seen on the increasingly unpersuasive Survivor II, where hairless armpits and bikini zones remain intact through weeks of outback deprivation.)
But Samuel Jackson and his many hairstyles free us in a more important way. Among the many ways the 1990s were an era without style, one of the most striking was the lack of new hairdos. Any decade whose most memorable coiffure was the shaved-head and goatee look clearly lacked something in the way of self-expression. It's no coincidence that the early part of the decade saw the phrase "Bad Hair Day" sweep the nation as a catch-all symbol of human powerlessness. The phrase tells us that we are at the mercy of a scalp that will always be above us, that the best we can hope for is a pate that occasionally fails to cause us trouble. But Samuel L. Jackson has never given in to this pessimism, and his hair experiments are a vivid example of human will triumphing over the elements. Just as his career closely traces the great explosion of roles for black actors that has taken place over the last twenty years (as recently as the late eighties he was still playing "Hold-up Man," "Gang Member No. 2," and "Black Guy"), so Jackson's variety of wigs has served as a reverse bellwether for our age, a shining beacon proclaiming that regardless of race, creed, color, even relative degrees of baldness we can all can free ourselves from the tyranny of hair.
courtesy of Vache Folle
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