A bit later than I originally intended, I finally got around to seeing
Barbershop tonight. If
you haven’t done so as well, I highly recommend you follow suit: it’s
an excellent film, which pulls off the almost-impossible feat of being
popular without having to give up its intelligence.
Most of the film is set in the barbershop of the title, a barely-going
concern which was inherited by its proprietor, Calvin (Ice Cube) from
his father. It’s been the place where colourful Chicago south siders
have hung out and shot the breeze for over 40 years, and only when he
sells it does Calvin finally appreciate how much it really means.
Sounds hokey? Well, it is, a little, but not uncomfortably so. And
the Message is delivered with so much humour and panache that it never
stirs up any resentment. There’s also a broad slapstick subplot about
a pair of Laurel-and-Hardy small time crooks trying to rip off an ATM
machine, which not only keeps the laughs coming when the situation back
in the barbershop gets too serious, but also serves to give the camera
a little fresh air. Without that subplot, the film would essentially
be a claustrophobic stage play.
And for all that it takes place pretty much entirely in the same location,
a transferred stage play à la Six
Degrees of Separation or Glengarry
Glen Ross this is not. There’s very little in the way of character
development: the film basically takes a set of sterotypes, puts them
in the barbershop, and then has each one redeem himself in turn. The
oreo and the wigger start out fighting and end up as friends, the twice-convicted
felon helps solve a crime, the put-upon girlfriend asserts herself and
dumps her boyfriend, and the overweight African ends up getting the
girl. Sophisticated character development this is not.
Another thing that Barbershop isn’t: "Smoke
moved to the South Side of Chicago," as I guessed it might be in
my September 17 blog. Calvin is no Auggie Wren, although Eddie, the
character played with relish by Cedric the Entertainer, would not be
out of place in the Brooklyn tobacconist, opining in his hilariously
anti-pc way on the subjects of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Rosa
Parks, OJ Simpson, and other icons of African-American history.
It’s because of those lines that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others
for a boycott of the movie, not (thankfully) that anybody seems to be
paying them the slightest bit of attention. But if anything is really
offensive about the film, it’s not a couple of lines put into the mouth
of an eccentric old barber who never has anybody in his chair.
For it’s not the treatment of African-American icons which rankles,
but rather the treatment of Africans. Dinka (Dinka!), the African
character played by Leonard Earl Howze, isn’t even given a specific
country from which he’s meant to come (unlike the Punjabi convenience-store
owner across the street, who corrects the misapprehension that he’s
Pakistani). He is a naive doofus who seeks successfully
to learn from his American brothers, a man who finally gets what he
wants not by dint of his charming love of poetry so much as through
the delivery of a well-timed left hook.
Still, one can only get so offended by the portrayal of any given character
in this film, given how broadly painted most of them are. And Dinka
gets one of the most touching scenes in the film: when the girl he gave
a card to asks him whether he wrote the poem inside himself, he breaks
into a mile-wide, completely unselfconscious grin, and proudly says
that no, it was actually Pablo Neruda.
It’s scenes like that, or the one where Calvin is being chased through
the icy streets of Chicago by a thug trying to give him $20,000,
which stick with you after you’ve seen the film. Barbershop never
takes itself too seriously, and so when, occasionally, it comes to a
note of grace when Eddie, for instance, shows how really
to shave a man we feel elevated, rather than preached at.
So go see this film. You won’t learn anything about human nature, about
African-American life in the inner city, or even about cutting hair.
But you will have a good time, you won’t feel as though your intelligence
has been insulted, and you will greatly admire the central performance
by Ice Cube. In a time when Hollywood films in general and African-American
films in particular nearly always play for the lowest of the lowest
common denominators, that’s an achievement to applaud.