Barbershop 2: Back in Business begins with a little history. The camera descends through an array of fireworks, lighting 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, another figure stumbles through the scene — it’s Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), the charismatic, mush-mouthed raconteur whose opinions regarding Rosa Parks ignited minor controversy in 2002.
On the run from a pair of cops, young Eddie slams into the Uncle Sam (one more comic-political swipe at the elderly emblem), 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.”
These first five minutes grant Eddie and the barbershop some specific background, of resistance and community. They also make Barbershop 2 look like it will be 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, 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. What it doesn’t have, of course, is a sense of history, loyalty or community.
In the moral and social economy assumed by Barbershop, this lack makes Nappy Cutz the enemy; even 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), pretty Ricky (Michael Ealy), gentle “African” Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), and the “Eminem of the barber world,” Isaac (Troy Garity). Also back for another go is straight-laced Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), 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 drops into 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.
And of course, the movie lingers in the shop long enough to let Cedric riff on President Clinton, Mike Tyson, and R. Kelly. 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 grant him specificity, and 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 (Queen Latifah), who appears briefly, to exchange insults at a barbeque-to-support-the-barbershop. Here they perform for an enthusiastic audience, Gina noting Eddie’s resemblance to Shamu, and Eddie noting 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. Ah well, it’s the American Way.