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linda f. harrison
Assistant Professor of Law
Nova Southeastern University


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This movie could have been among the genre of film that portray an inner city black man as violent and criminal. While violence and crime were still there, the movie had a kindlier, gentler approach to presenting them. Barbershop expressed the tolerant atmosphere of the typical neighborhood barbershop as cultural institution.

Feature article

Barbershop: Going...Going...Gone.

by linda f. harrison

For African-Americans raised in the inner city and for those who have escaped it for suburbia, Barbershop evokes images and memories that are familiar and endearing. Driven by an ensemble that features the big screen debut of Eve, the comic Cedric the Entertainer, and screen veteran Ice Cube, plus an excellent supporting cast, Barbershop hits all the right notes in its effort to genuinely portray black America's Barnes and Noble: the barber shop. Here, you can find all makes and models of the black man. In fact, this movie contains about every specimen imaginable and adds to it.

The film evolves around the character Calvin Palmer, played by rapper-actor Ice Cube, as the owner of Calvin's Barbershop. The barbershop was inherited by Calvin from his father, but Calvin is feeling the financial pressure of operating the shop and he has his own dreams of making it big through other schemes, all legitimate but unfulfilled. Calvin has exhausted his bank resources because he has borrowed against the business in order to finance a variety of the dreams he has unsuccessfully chased.

But more burdensome than his financial woes, Calvin is suffering from a lack of vision. Standing behind a barber's chair every day, looking only at the customers who wander into the barbershop, he loses his purpose for being there. He can no longer see the value of struggling to maintain this black-owned business in this bleak environment when doing so requires that he constantly size up his customers only for their monetary value. He refuses to be like his father, who worked every day only to die broke. With his first child on the way, Calvin wants desperately to provide more for his family than his father could provide for him. It's this crisis that propels him to do something that his father would never do: sell the business.

There are other characters that make this movie an instant classic. There's Ricky, the two-strikes ex-con who is working in the shop and trying to keep his nose clean. A young, intelligent, sensitive black man, portrayed by handsome Michael Ealy, he is a reminder that in the United States, 1 black man in every 7 is in prison, and no matter how bright you are or how hard you try, sometimes trouble finds you. Contrast him to Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), the college student know-it-all who is just cutting hair until he can start his life. No one challenges him when he corrects them with his "facts" (some of which turn out to be wrong), but it's clear that they think less of him because he thinks less of them. You can picture him in 10 years driving by the barbershop in his "beemer" (BMW), pointing it out to his wife and kids as if it's an amusement ride that he survived, totally disconnected. His appearances in the neighborhood, if any, will consist of a weekday ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating a feel-good "giving back to the community" effort he helps orchestrate. He has already sold out.

Cedric the Entertainer plays Eddie, Calvin's connection to his past and to his father. Eddie has all the history, knows all about what the barbershop meant to Calvin Sr., and all about the way things used to be. Although he has no customers now, he is at his best when recounting the events in history that had significance to black America and to the barbershop. Not shy about speaking his mind, Eddie holds court on just about any topic. When challenged about some of his opinions, he is quick to point out that the barbershop is where any black person can say anything, no matter how ridiculous. From putting Rosa Parks in her place to expressing his opinion on Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, Eddie churns the debate and keeps everyone honest. This is truest when addressing Calvin, who at times becomes a churly character who is cracking under the stress of having to pay the bills.

Terri (Eve) and Isaac (Troy Garity) are the objects of different elements that are present in the black community: the female victim of a cheating, sweet-talking man who she lets run all over her, and the white man who really believes he is black because he has acquired the trappings of blackness...the phat (fine) black girlfriend, the escalade (Cadillac), the bling-bling (jewelry), the vernacular ("yee-ah", "whasup", "homie"), and the "keeping it real" attitude ("dis is me, deal wit it"). While women are a relative staple in the barbershop, the white man is an uncommon one (women are there largely to braid men's hair; white men are there...well...why?). However, they round out the personality of the surroundings, which is an important statement in this film. As important is the presence of Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), an African who is fighting to understand a culture that differs greatly from his, but with which he's associated because of the color of his skin. Additionally, there is an East Indian shop owner in Calvin's neighborhood who is supported by Calvin and told to "stay strong" originally because he sympathizes with him as a victim of the robbery around which the film's story evolves. His ATM machine is stolen by Ricky's cousin JD (Anthony Anderson) and his sidekick Billy (Lahmard Tate). The East Indian shopkeeper later gains Calvin's respect when, on a visit to his store, he learns that he has a black wife and intends to remain in the neighborhood and rebuild his store because of the inspiration he took from Calvin's words to him. While this acceptance by a black shop owner of a East Indian competitor is the biggest stretch the filmmakers ask the audience to make, it's consistent with Calvin's personality and thus, easier to swallow.

The antagonists round out the ensemble of Barbershop. JD and Billy are the buffoons who, after stealing the ATM machine, cart it all over town trying to break into it (unaware that it is empty). JD is willing to let Ricky take his third strike for his crime, by using Ricky's truck and leaving the license plate behind. Lester (Keith David) is Calvin's savior-turned-swindler. He offers Calvin more money than he could turn down to sell him his barbershop with the promise of keeping the "name on the door" only to find out that he intended to make it a "gentlemen's club" called The Barbershop. The remainder of the story revolves around Calvin trying to give Lester his money back after Calvin changes his mind about the value of the barbershop not only to him, but to all his patrons who rely on it as part of their lives.

This movie could have been among the genre of film that portray an inner city black man as violent and criminal. While violence and crime were still there, the movie had a kindlier, gentler approach to presenting them. Barbershop expressed the tolerant atmosphere of the typical neighborhood barbershop as cultural institution.

But this movie takes an interesting look at several cultural forces currently present in black America, some new, some old. Of course, black women have always been present in the barbershop, sometimes because their beauty shops were appendages, or because they offered other services within, such as relaxers or manicures. To some extent, black foreigners have been present, either from the Caribbean or Africa, so that theme is also recurrent.

Newer, however, are the presence of the East Indian and the assimilating white man. Both of these are presented in interesting ways. The East Indian, a natural enemy (or so the media would have us believe) of the traditional inner city black-owned business, seems to be supported by Calvin. His motivation is unclear, though. It could be because Calvin sympathizes with him as a victim of common prey (the criminal), or because he presents himself with common traits (a black woman), or because he connects with Calvin personally by revealing to Calvin what his words of support meant to him. In any event, all this is going on while the other members of the barbershop continue to confuse his national origin and disparage him in other ways.

Isaac, however, is more complicated because he is presented as the real deal. He is a white man whose identity as a white person is forged with his identity as an inner city resident. The tension in the movie is between him and Jimmy, the black college student. In many ways, Isaac beats Jimmy out on the black scale. He eventually wins respect from Jimmy and everyone else at the shop, but only after he does the only black thing he has left to do...give Jimmy a haircut that passes the test. (Jimmy has already failed at that in a scene where he gouges a hole in the hair of a young teenager because of his inattentiveness.) Isaac has Jimmy pegged as a sellout and offers that when Jimmy is long gone, he will still be there and still be "real". Now that's an interesting concept to ponder. Blacks are selling out and whites are hanging behind and keeping it real. Once Isaac passes the test, it's unclear what effect that has on Jimmy. In a sense, it appears as if Jimmy approves of Isaac as someone who can maintain the traditions of the barbershop. It's not clear whether Jimmy has made that decision for himself; the movie ends there. I guess Barbershop II will reveal who's left to keep the tradition alive.

Posted October 7, 2002

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