Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:42 - Released 9/13/02

The fact that African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have publicly denounced Tim Story's nearly all-black independent film Barbershop for its disrespectful remarks about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackson himself, will no doubt help more than hurt box-office figures—everyone knows controversy is the best way to sell tickets—and the film has indeed done very well so far, having earned $21 million in its first weekend. But after seeing the film I have to wonder if these distinguished leaders are even getting the point. The whole idea of the scene in question, which is explained in the dialogue, is that a man can voice his opinions in this barber shop without fear of reprisal, he can safely assert his views even if they are not the popular or even the most politically correct views, because this barber shop has established itself as a safe haven for such expression. That's called freedom, folks, a concept for which those same black leaders fought and continue to fight, a concept on which this nation was based. Moreover, the disparaging comments are simply the opinions of one character who is hotly contradicted by almost everyone else in the room; the script in no way implies that these are the viewpoints of the filmmakers or of the film itself. So let me get this straight...we don't mind hundreds of black characters being portrayed every year in mainstream cinema as murderers, rapists, thieves, drug and alcohol addicts, wife and child abusers, etc., but if a black character exercises his right to voice his opinion, we object?

Regardless of the news surrounding it, Barbershop is for the most part a funny, thought-provoking, and well-performed film that deserves to be seen. The story, written by Mark Brown with screenplay help from Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd, involves Calvin Palmer (rapper Ice Cube), the third-generation owner of the titular establishment on Chicago's South Side, which serves not only as a barber shop, but a meeting place for a community of regular customers who come in to exchange views and share companionship. Though his deceased father has passed into legend for his many years of ownership and his generosity with the poor, Calvin himself is plagued with debts, his wife (Jazsmin Lewis) is expecting their first child, and his last loan application fell through. Meanwhile, in a side plot so silly it's out of place, a pair of inept thugs (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) steal an ATM machine from another local business. While they lug the heavy machine around the neighborhood and try to break it open as if it were a huge piggy bank, Calvin wrestles with his mixed feelings over his establishment, finally selling it to a slimy loan shark (Keith David) and then almost immediately regretting the decision.

While neither of these plot lines is particularly interesting, the one being uninspired and the other just plain stupid, what is really enjoyable about this movie is the interaction between the large cast that makes up the staff and customers of the shop, including comedian Cedric the Entertainer (The Original Kings Of Comedy), who plays an aging barber with some very unorthodox ideas about black history, Sean Patrick Thomas as a conceited college boy, Michael Ealy as an ex-con trying to stay straight, Troy Garity as a white boy steeped in black culture, and rap singer Eve as the shop's only female employee, whose cheating boyfriend is almost as annoying to her as whoever keeps drinking her apple juice. These characters argue about everything from Affirmative Action to education to romance to how to give a good shave. While Cedric's age make-up, with fake-looking pieces of cotton inserted in his hair, is neither convincing nor necessary, his portrayal is often howlingly funny, and his opinions, controversial or not, provide a side of the race issue not often seen by white folks. As My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a hilarious poke at Greek-American culture that would have been offensive were it not written by a Greek, Barbershop is valuable as a peek into the real lives and minds of African Americans.

Word has it that Rev. Jackson made his judgment without even seeing the movie, which may explain his ignorance of the context, but whether you're interested in the film's controversy or simply a good evening's entertainment, you'll get both if you see this film. With its themes of appreciating what you have, learning to believe in something, and finding a way for all of us to exist together in peace, juxtaposed with its silly, slapsticky criminal subplot, Barbershop offers a flawed but personal look into the struggles that exist within the African-American community and man himself. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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