Nearly 20 years ago, Nia Long became Black America's sweetheart. Ever since her big screen debut in "Boyz 'N the Hood" we've supported her in countless roles ranging from the dramatic "Soul Food" to the hilarious "Big Mama's House." However, this time around the petite, single mom's latest role serves as familiar territory as she stars as herself in funnyman Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair." ESSENCE.com caught up with its November 2009 cover girl to find out why there's so much fuss about Black women's strands, her own Hollywood setbacks when it concerns her coiff and how her mom finally helped her understand the mane idea.
ESSENCE.COM: In the film you mention that you sometimes wear weaves made with Indian hair. Later in the documentary, we learn how much of the Indian hair for wigs and weaves is actually obtained from India [where women shave their heads as part of a spiritual tradition]. How did that make you feel?
NIA LONG: When I saw those things I was like, Wow!' Women don't get that type of information when purchasing hair or having it styled. So to actually see culturally what was going on, I felt bad. I felt really guilty and I thought we're doing this out of vanity and these women are doing it out of a religious sacrifice. That is just so extreme, you know?
ESSENCE.COM: Why do you think that in 2009, long, straight hair still seems to be the hairstyle of choice?
LONG: In Hollywood, there is pressure for actresses to look a certain way. When you get on set, there is usually a White hairstylist in the trailer and she was not trained to do natural hair. She knows nothing about a pressing comb. It's getting easier and easier to have your own team and have people there that know how to cater to our needs. But if you have a shower scene and then in the next scene you're supposed to have your hair flying in the wind, you're going to have some problems and production is going to be pissed because it is going to take an hour and a half to make that switchover. However, we do have to look at whether or not we're trying to conform or deny our natural beauty. You have to ask yourself that question. And if the answer is "No, I just like my hair like this," then it's absolutely fine; it's a fashion choice.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you allow your son to use the term "good hair" when describing wavy or straight textures?
LONG: He doesn't really know how to articulate what he's feeling. But he will say things to me like, "Mommy, why do you have a weave?" or "What's that white stuff you put on your hair.'" Once for Halloween he wanted spiky hair and he said, "Why can't you just put that white stuff on my hair to make it spiky?" I gasped and was like, What am I doing to my child?! But thank God for Obama because I'm like he has an Afro so you need to wear yours proud.
ESSENCE.COM: In ESSENCE's November 2009 cover story, you revealed a painful experience from your formative years at a Supercuts Hair Salon. Why was the experience so traumatic?
LONG: Well, I basically went on a field trip with the Brownies. I went in the salon and I was the only little Black girl in the group. And it is just that feeling you get. All Black women have felt it: whether you have walked into a store and they're looking to see if you're really shopping or whatever, we've just all been there. So the stylist who was assigned to do my hair was just scared to death. She didn't know what to do; I had a big Afro. It was horrific.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you go from that scared little girl in Supercuts to this self-assured woman we know today?
LONG: My mother. My mom is super-strong. My mother has tattoos and wears [locks]. She's a hippie and she does not care what anyone thinks of her. When she walks into a room she owns it. It's not a rebellious thing, it's just who she is. When you grow up in a house with a mom like that you take on some of those attitudes. Our styles are totally different but she's given me a total appreciation for Black women, Black beauty and Black culture. And my father is a writer, so I really didn't have a choice.
"Good Hair" opens in select theaters on Friday, October 9, and nationwide on Friday, October 23.