“Ced had this idea, this funny run he wanted to do, that he kept showing me throughout the rehearsal process.” Watching the opening scene in Barbershop 2: Back in Business, director Kevin Sullivan and producers Bob Teitel and George Tillman, Jr. recall how they they wanted to top their first film. Their commentary track reveals that, in addition to Cedric the Entertainer’s “funny run,” they modeled the first moments after what they consider the “greatest sequel ever made,” namely, The Godfather, Part II.
This ambition puts a new spin on Barbershop 2, as its invocation of “history” operates on multiple levels. In this first scene, fireworks light up the sky over a street scene titled “July 4, 1967, Southside Chicago” (a second commentary track, with actors Cedric the Entertainer, Troy Garity, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Jaszmin Lewis, offers another perspective: “You’ll notice already the difference in budget between the two films,” says Garity; Cedric adds, “The first Barbershop, we had sparkers, and hit crowbars on the concrete”). A drunken Uncle Sam staggers in an alley, a jokey allusion to the national celebration, but also an emblem of the national turmoil of the time, the dire divides of class and race, the eruptive distrust between generations.
Just then, another figure stumbles through the scene. It’s Eddie (Cedric), the charismatic raconteur whose opinions regarding Rosa Parks ignited minor controversy in the first film, in 2002. On the run from a pair of cops, young Eddie slams into the Uncle Sam, then dashes into the first open door, Calvin Sr.‘s (Javon Johnson) barbershop. When the proprietor agrees to hide him from his pursuers, Eddie later explains to Calvin Jr. (Ice Cube) 35 years later, he feels not only indebted to his new friend, but also like he’s found a “home.”
As he gets his conk cut off (teary as he notes Calvin Sr. told him he’d “play” at cutting, to hide him from the cops), Eddie comes to understand a new place for himself, and, no small thing, frames an acutely political history by his own story. Sullivan observes, “I think [Cedric’s] the comic genius of our time. I wanted to capture his point of view of the ‘60s and bring us into the movie that way.” (The DVD also includes six deleted scenes with cast and crew commentary; outtakes where Cedric makes everyone laugh; and music videos by Sleepy Brown and Mary J. Blige, featuring Eve.)
These first five minutes grant Eddie and the barbershop a thematically important background of resistance and community. They also make Barbershop 2 different from the 2002 original, which, save for Calvin’s occasional references to his father, is firmly situated in the present, namely the son’s personal struggle over whether to keep or sell the shop he’s inherited. But what follows is not very different from what came before. Calvin will face another version of the same dilemma, and he’ll come to a similarly right decision. In between, he’ll trade japes with the same characters and hang out in the same place: the barbershop.
Once again, the central issue is real estate. Whereas the original had Calvin’s personal finances in turmoil, here the concerns are more widespread and more overtly politicized, in particular, the gentrification of the neighborhood where his shop has been in business for so many years. This year’s crisis is initiated by the incursion of a Nappy Cutz franchise across the street, courtesy of the Porsche-driving developer Quentin Leroux (Harry Lennix). The new joint has a fancy website advertising milk baths, shiny new appliances, and a basketball hoop (Cedric calls him a “Magic Johnson-esque kind of developer”).
What it doesn’t have, of course, is a sense of history, loyalty or neighborhood. At first Calvin, wannabe entrepreneur, also lacks that sense, though Quentin’s attitude gets his back up right away. “We just gotta step up our game,” he asserts. During an early argument, he says, “You know, they could tear down all this mess around here, if you ask me. Change is a good thing.”
In the moral and social economy assumed by Barbershop, this lack makes Nappy Cutz the obvious enemy (and Calvin is the one who has to learn a history lesson). One customer reports that Nappy Cutz has “fish in the floor, swimmin’, you can walk right on top of ‘em!”; worse, it’s part of a broader urban development program, including the buyouts of other local vendors and the political and financial advancement of the slick Alderman Brown (Robert Wisdom). Standing opposed to the “progress” are solid citizen Calvin and his bickering headcutters—sassy Terri (Eve, whom Teitel says “just stepped up in this film!”); pretty, blue-eyed Ricky (Michael Ealy); gentle “African” Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze); and the “Eminem of the barber world,” Isaac (Garity). Also back for another go is straight-laced Jimmy (Thomas, who introduces his character on the commentary track by saying: “He’s still an asshole, he’s just movin’ on up”), now working for Alderman Brown, and increasingly squeamish about the deals getting made.
As before, the film allots brief moments to assorted interactions: Isaac and Ricky compete, Jimmy and Terri argue, Calvin tries to control the chaos (he goes so far as to prohibit profanity in the shop, for a minute, to create “family” atmosphere). Skipping from moment to moment, the movie is attentive to local detail (girls jumping rope, folks on the street), less concerned with plot. Calvin walks through a series of mostly unrelated situations during the day, visiting Miss Emma (Jackie Taylor), now in danger of losing her daycare business; caring for his own baby; and chatting with his infinitely patient wife (Jaszmin Lewis, whom Calvin’s ex, Gina [Queen Latifah], calls the “Happy Meal,” whereas she’s the “Supersize”).
And of course, the movie lingers in the shop long enough to let Cedric riff on President Clinton (“All I’m saying is, if you gonna have oral relations with an ugly, fat white girl with low self-esteem, lock the door”), Mike Tyson, and R. Kelly (Cedric notes they decided purposely to stay away from Civil Rights figures this time, to target celebrities and politicians). That Eddie’s story is fleshed out repeatedly during the film’s flashbacks—he’s in love with a beautiful woman he meets on the subway, he’s down with the Black Panthers (at least until they talk about killing and dying to make a point), he’s a dismayed observer of the riots following Dr. King’s assassination—such that his running commentary is grounded in experience that’s both nostalgic and evocative.
While these peeks into Eddie’s past situate his cynicism in some Forest Gumpian experience (as if to say, “He’s been there, so he has the right to speak”), he meets his match in the present day, in Gina, with whom he exchanges insults at a barbeque-to-support-the-barbershop. Their audience is enthusiastic, as Gina notes Eddie’s resemblance to Shamu, and Eddie notes another woman’s resemblance to Chewbaca. It’s an old-school throwdown, rowdy, friendly, and good fun.
Indeed, such moments illustrate both Barbershops’ fundamental appeal, an appreciation of ritual and exchange, a generosity of spirit. And oh yes, along with all that comes the flipside ethos, for Latifah has signed on not only for this moment, but also to pitch her own spin-off franchise-to-be, the movie Beauty Shop, featuring Gina and her own crew of chatty beauticians, in a shop next to Calvin’s. As Cedric puts it, “So they basically used us, and piggybacked off our talents, in order to blow up the franchise. It’s all good though.”