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

have called

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.

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