Barbershop entertains before it inflames
Barbershop has made headlines recently as “the film denounced by Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.” The two civil rights activists have called for a boycott of the film due to remarks made by one character that attempt to downplay the significance of Rosa Parks in the Civil Rights Movement. Filmgoers can judge for themselves whether the comment resembles truth or not, but don’t be fooled by the controversy. Barbershop has plenty to say, but in no way is it “controversial.”The film features Ice Cube in the starring role that he has perfected: a proud young man in tough surroundings who has to check his egotism to eventually do the right thing. Calvin owns the Chicago barbershop that his father owned, and his father before him, but on the side, he’s mired in the fantasies of get-rich-quick schemes that will get him out from under his patriarchy’s shadow and the debt they left him.Meanwhile, the shop is the same as it ever was: a collection of colorful neighborhood personalities who have turned the tile floor into their disco and the chairs into bully pulpits. It’s the place that no one leaves for more than ten minutes and everyone is welcome, or used to be. Calvin’s obsession with money has led him to shun some of the less deserving neighborhood personalities, creating the dark side to his character: he can be really heartless.It’s that selfishness and the accompanying hunger for the almighty dollar that threatens the survival of the shop, and the way of life that thrives within it.Strangely, the film reminded me of the Coen Brothers’ 2001 neo-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There. Both are partially set in barbershops and use elegant black and white photography to display the tiny details that make barbershops comforting and un-modern places: hair stuck in electric shavers, combs piled up in wooden drawers, white foam lather. The Man Who Wasn’t There reveled in close-ups of little boys crew-cuts to dismantle the audience’s feeling of safety in nostalgia; all those tiny hairs we see flying from the blade of the scissors enumerate the complexities and ambiguities of modern life, as if to say, “How could we ever hope to sort it all out?” The resulting tale decries any effort at establishing a moral code because, it says, human actions and desires are just too complex. Barbershop’s display of the details does the opposite.There’s one scene where the old-timer gives the young barbers a lesson in how to give a proper straight-razor shave. It’s not tough, we learn. You just have to take the time and the pride to do it right. The camera captures the lesson just as plainly as it’s given, under a clean light and at even angles. Morals like dignity and self-respect are a given in this world, and the path to them is presented as straight and narrow.What is complex in Barbershop is the way of life beyond the path, symbolized by the thieves of an ATM machine who embark on an epic journey around the city searching for a safe place to break it open. It’s a re-telling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the man in Hades who is doomed to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down over and over.In general, money is a myth in Barbershop. It’s never showed to us except when briefly $20,000 is taken out of an envelope. It’s talked about, but it never materializes, just like Sisyphus’ rock that never reaches the top of the hill. What’s real in Barbershop is the characters and the place they habitate, both of which are well-drawn and well, believable.How refreshing to see a movie that delights in realities instead of dreams.
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