[8 November 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“They really clicked, they hung out, they had three weeks before we started shooting the barbershop scenes,” says director Tim Story while observing his actors together in Barbershop. “They just got a chance to know one another. And it was cool that we were in Chicago, because at the end of the day, they didn’t go home. They went out. And we were all staying at the same hotel, and they would just hang out, and created a camaraderie, a family unit.”
This would be the mantra for the Barbershop movies, their incubation of familial feelings and communal inclinations: form is content is franchise. Just so, Barbershop: DVD Collector’s Set, pitched as an “off the hook collection,” is all about the group love. It’s also about recycling. Comprised of the first two dvds, exactly, plus a “limited edition red, white, and blue headband,” it offers up just what came before, but in time for Xmas. The dvds of Barbershop and Barbershop 2: Back in Business bring predictable extras (making-of- documentaries, outtakes, deleted scenes, music videos by Fabolous, Eve and Mary J. Blige, and Sleepy Brown), as well as entirely pleasant group commentary tracks.
For the first film, director Tim Story, producers Bob Teitel and George Tillman Jr., and one of the writers, Don Scott recall the production and how much they respect and admire their coworkers; Barbershop 2 offers two tracks, one by the cast (Cedric the Entertainer, Sean Patrick Thomas, Troy Garity, and Jazsmin Lewis), and the second by director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, and those dedicated producers again, Teitel and Tillman). The most striking point that emerges here is that the franchise (soon to be expanded with Beauty Shop), though identified with frontman Ice Cube, has everything to do with the producers, who share in the films’ concept and management. The films’ thematic focus on “community” is born of their creative process.
The basic concept of Barbershop is clear in the title: the shop is a traditional communal space, where folks hang out, argue, tell stories, play checkers, and sharing plain talk about a range of topics. The plot (which occurs during a single day) concerns Calvin (Cube), who inherited the shop from his father, who inherited it from his father, sells it to a local (Chicago’s South Side) gangster named Lester (Keith David, whom Story rightfully lauds as “just an amazing actor!”). Though Calvin’s pregnant wife Jennifer (Jazsmin Lewis) suggests this may not be the best time to start up a new business, he wants to build a studio so he can produce music. But of course, she’s right—almost as soon as he has the cash in his hand, Calvin’s rethinking his decision, and spends the rest of the day trying to figure a way out of the deal, which Lester has naturally arranged wholly to Calvin’s detriment anyway.
Calvin’s not the only one whose day isn’t going so well. Terri’s (Eve) begins when she learns that her trifling boyfriend Kevin (Jason George) is hiding a girl under his bed: she arrives at work in a fury, topped off when she finds that one of her coworkers drank her apple juice. Though she’s clearly the object of much brotherly affection among the guys, and for Nigerian immigrant Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), of a deeply felt crush, no one wants to fess up, but a theme becomes apparent—it’s about respect, for property, but more importantly, for people. The most trivial act is suddenly loaded with meaning and consequence, though this useful lesson is never pounded home, only suggested, trusting viewers to understand.
This light touch is in part a function of both Barbershop films’ intelligent respect for deft broad strokes made by Cedric the Entertainer, playing Eddie, a cantankerous raconteur who spends his cutting heads and days regaling coworkers and customers alike with stories of the old days (when he demonstrates his shaving technique, complete with pearl-handled razor, everyone pays attention) and his rowdy, contentious opinions (“All Rosa Parks did was sit her ass down!” or again, “Martin Luther King was a ho!”). As Story notes on the commentary track, “the drama takes care of itself… I didn’t want to make a comedy that people forget.”
The fact that Eddie used to work for Calvin’s dad is revisited in the opening of Barbershop 2, which invokes “history” on multiple levels. In the sequel’s first scene, fireworks light up the sky over a street scene titled “July 4, 1967, Southside Chicago.” 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, a young Eddie comes on the scene (“Ced had this idea, this funny run he wanted to do, that he kept showing me throughout the rehearsal process,” says Sullivan on the DVD commentary track). Eluding a pair of cops, 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.” These first five minutes grant Eddie and the barbershop a thematically important background of resistance and community.
Eddie’s opponents in the shop include a range of “types” who evolve into full-fledged characters during both films. College boy Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) presumes that he’s only cutting hair for tuition money, urging his fellows to think beyond the shop walls, but he comes off sounding like he’s riding some high horse, and the others resent it (in the second film, he’s working for the slick Alderman Brown (Robert Wisdom), and increasingly squeamish about all the deal-making (as Thomas says on the second dvd’s commentary track, “He’s still an asshole, he’s just movin’ on up”; make that a complicated “asshole,” one who means well but sees less well).
Isaac (Troy Garity), who is Jewish, becomes a particular target for Jimmy, underlined during the scene where Isaac arrives to work, in his SUV: his black girlfriend slides her tongue down his throat, his hand grabs her ass, and Jimmy’s face goes screwy, like he’s just eaten a lemon. While Jimmy catches flack for acting too straight, he criticizes Isaac for dressing, talking, and acting too street.
The one barber who has street cred (in the form of two strikes on his arrest record) is Ricky (Michael Ealy), whom Calvin has hired in an effort to help him turn things around. When, at film’s beginning, the convenience store across the street is robbed, the local cop (Tom Wright) immediately suspects Ricky, and come by the shop to warn him they have tape of the getaway vehicle, and will be calling on him when they can read the license plate. Ricky protests, rightfully, and the film reveals right off that he’s not guilty, that the culprits are JD (Anthony Anderson) and Billy (Lahmard Tate). They think they’ve scored big—they took the store’s brand new ATM—but of course, they’ll learn that crime doesn’t pay. Unfortunately, while Anderson is sharp as ever, the occasional cuts to this subplot (how will they get the machine open?) slows everything else down, distracting from the more compelling community at Calvin’s. By the end of the day, everyone—including reluctant Calvin—comes to appreciate both the bickering and the love at the shop, and the film does a decent job displaying the entertaining and supportive atmosphere.
The second film repeats the sell-out problem, but situates it differently. Once again, the central issue is real estate, this time having to do with gentrification. The barbershop’s immediate competition is 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 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 Alderman Brown. 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).
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.”