Taken in context, `Barbershop' keeps it real

October 04, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- If you didn't know better, you might think that our most prominent black leaders were running out of serious causes to protest.

That might explain why the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, among some others, decided to pick on one of the most thoughtful comedies about African-Americans that African-Americans in Hollywood have ever produced.

I expected to put off seeing the new hit movie Barbershop until it came out on videotape. Movies are too big of a project, requiring too much planning and money, to be taken on capriciously in my family.

But when I heard that Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton wanted me to avoid this film, I reflexively felt compelled to see it.

And I am happy that I did. Mr. Jackson said he had no plans to actually see the movie. The script was good -- or bad -- enough for him. But context is everything. Lose the seemingly offensive lines and you lose this movie's most riveting, risky and revealing moments.

The offending lines are delivered by "Eddie," the old-school barber played brilliantly by Cedric the Entertainer, who cautions that he would "never" say what he is about to say when white folks are around.

Eddie is lovable, very familiar and poignantly pathetic. He is growing old. His large and fashionably outdated Afro is streaked with silver-gray. No one seems to be able to remember the last time they saw him actually cut anybody's hair. Yet he shows up every day to hold court among the younger folks who humor his endless pontifications -- up to a point.

His explosion comes as he is trying to make a point that no one is bothering to hear, that there were other heroes in the civil rights struggle that the young bloods had not learned about. Their achievements were overshadowed by superstars like Rosa Parks, who helped the NAACP launch the civil rights movement in the 1960s by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

In black neighborhoods, you understand, the barbershop represents more than a haircut. It also tends to be a way of life, a free-fire zone of cultural connections and personal viewpoints in a male-centered world. It is a town hall, a community center, a sounding board and personal therapy among "us brothers."

Unfortunately, as Eddie's frustration is ridiculed and dismissed by the young bloods, his fury grows. He becomes increasingly vulgar about Ms. Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, including Jesse Jackson.

Having covered Mr. Jackson for more than three decades, I'm not surprised that he was not amused to know an expletive was being put in front of his name. Mr. Jackson has a great sense of humor (Remember his dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham on Saturday Night Live?), as long as it is not at his own expense.

But it is significant to note that no one in the barbershop agrees with Eddie. They shout down his irreverence. They admonish his wrong-headed and "disrespectful" remarks about Ms. Parks and other civil rights pioneers.

Having grown up in black barbershops across this great land of ours, I loved Eddie and every other character in this clever little movie because they sounded so familiar.

I couldn't help but think that Eddie, a man who never gets his "props" in the barbershop, identifies perhaps a bit too closely with others who never received proper recognition. I know people who are like that. You probably do, too.

He uses hurtful language because he is hurting inside. His young friends are too strong and confident to take him seriously, which adds to his pain. They are of another generation, one that has grown up more self-assured and self-confident, partly because of the achievements of Dr. King and others who came before.

Satire is tragedy plus time, said the late comedian Lenny Bruce, who also knew how to offend the right people. Too little time has passed since the civil rights era for some of us to distance ourselves far enough from the pain to find any humor in its ironies. In that sense, Mr. Jackson seems to be showing our age, the age of us baby boomers, more than that of the newer hip-hop generation.

The young bloods talk a lot about "keepin' it real." They sound more ready, willing and able in many ways to move on to the next level of freedom, where we might feel freer to laugh at our own foibles and better understand our pain.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing company. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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