Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Martin Luther King Was a Ho

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Odienator Note: Folks, Black History Mumf is over, but I do owe some pieces to the series. Here's the first of a few BHM Extras that will include a One Drop of Black Cinema and a certain movie by QT. And also catch me on Thursday back at my own blog, Tales of Odienary Madness

After the success of the My T Fine Barber Shop sequences in Coming to America, somebody MUST have suggested to Paramount that a movie set inside a barber shop would work. A spinoff, perhaps, with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall playing several roles. Someone could come up with a bullshit reason for being in the shop for most of the movie. Maybe once or twice, we’d follow Mr. Clarence to some real ghetto event that surpasses the one featuring Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate. Alas, either Paramount didn’t listen or no one broached the subject. Not that I am lamenting this; I’m glad Mr. Clarence and Sol remained in their one movie together, unspoiled by corporate greed.

Fourteen years later, MGM made a movie set in a barber shop, called it Barbershop, and got it rated PG-13. Mr. Clarence would have scoffed at the tamer rating (remember his response to “you ain’t never met Martin Luther the King!”), but by this time, his portrayer had gone past PG-13 and into the no-man’s land of Parental Guidance Suggested. Barbershop uses, as a starting point, your recollection of how much you loved those Coming to America scenes or, if you are in possession of a nappy head and a Y chromosome, your own experiences at your local barber shop. It then goes on to craft an amusing character study merged with a rather stupid and unfunny slapstick subplot. Sort of like a Tyler Perry movie.

WAIT! WAIT! Don’t leave! Barbershop eventually weaves this subplot into the main one, using it as a rather clever payoff. However, your mileage may vary on tolerating the film’s shifts from character-based verbal humor to broad, physical buffoonery. Two fools (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) smash and grab an ATM from an Indian-owned business across the street from the Barbershop of the title. They will spend the entire movie trying to get it open, often interrupting interesting scenes of comedy or conflict to appear onscreen wrestling with this bulky machine.

Barbershop tips its hat early by telling you the machine is empty, so any suspense that would have made these silly Wile E. Coyote-ish scenes work is gone. It’s just Anderson screaming and getting hurt, and Tate acting like he should be under the shortbus, not on it. I know I’m in the minority for being aggravated. I love slapstick, but these guys just tried my last nerve. Full disclosure: When I watched Barbershop again for this piece, I fast-forwarded through most of their scenes. There are two moments of humor I stopped to watch (Anderson outsmarting a cop trying to use the stolen ATM and Anderson’s grandmother’s reaction to seeing him), but other than that and the film’s climax, I saw less of these two characters than Barbershop contained.

Barbershop’s main plot, and the memorable characters it brought to the screen, more than make up for the Anderson subplot. At first, we see the similarities between Calvin’s Barbershop and the My T Fine: There’s a wisecracking old man whose statements get him in trouble with the other members of the shop, plus there’s a Jewish character mixing it up as well. Old folks just sit around playing checkers or shooting the breeze. Both films capture the barbershop atmosphere, but Barbershop uses it and its characters to offer up lessons for its younger audience.

Calvin (Ice Cube) is a man with dreams, a pregnant wife, and a fledgling barbershop deep in the ‘hood of Chicago. Inherited from his father, the barbershop is a neighborhood landmark where fathers and sons have convened for two generations. Calvin has given chairs to an African immigrant, Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), snooty college boy Jimmy James (Sean Patrick Thomas), cornrowed former criminal Ricky (Michael Ealy), temperamental sistah Terri (rapper Eve) and wannabe Negro White Boy Isaac (Jane Fonda’s kid, Troy Garity). Also in possession of a chair, though it is rarely used for anything but sitting, is Eddie, a 70 year old man with a Frederick Douglass do. Eddie was there when Calvin Sr. opened the shop, and he provides the link to the past. (In the sequel, the filmmakers make this link more explicit). Eddie is played by the much younger comedian Cedric the Entertainer. He provides the commentary that got Barbershop in serious trouble back in 2002.

Everybody has their mini-dramas, but the main drama involves the shop’s owner. To fund his latest pipe dream, Calvin sells the shop to Mr. Wallace (Keith David), who, unbeknownst to Calvin, plans on turning it into a strip club. When Calvin discovers this, he tries to give back the money Mr. Wallace ponied up. But Mr. Wallace is a loan shark, and unwilling to give up a prime piece of property unless Calvin pays double the price. Only the magnificent Keith David can be menacing while dressed like a groomsman at a 1981 wedding. When Calvin reveals his mistake to his very pregnant wife (Jazsmin Lewis), her reaction is not the typical pissed off sistah response one would expect. She’s the voice of reason, and Lewis plays her big scene with a sweet, quiet wisdom.

Speaking of pissed off sistahs, Terri is introduced barging in on her trifflin’ boyfriend Kevin (Jason George) with another woman. “Why don’t you look under the bed?” he asks her incredulously. It’s reverse psychology—his latest conquest IS under the bed. Comic violence ensues, and Terri starts her work day at the barbershop in such a foul mood her customer runs away. “She can’t cut my hair lookin’ like that!” he yells. Terri’s foul moods are common at the shop, as is her penchant for going back to Kevin no matter how badly he disrespects her. She’s ready to kick the ass of anyone who drinks the apple juice she keeps in the shop fridge, but she keeps forgiving a man who screws around on the regular. As I’ve said before, I’ll never understand why women do this, nor am I happy that these men get away scott free while the burned woman makes life a living fucking hell for the good men in the world. Why even try to be faithful and nice to a woman?  (Do I sound bitter? Good.)

One of those good men, Dinka, has a severe crush on Terri. He has a cute, Prince Akeem-ish accent and an optimism that being Black in America hasn’t yet destroyed. Typically, Terri doesn’t give him the time of day, but he’s persistent and, as Larenz Tate says in love jones, you’d be surprised how far persistence can get you. But Dinka’s timing is WAY off: he leaves flowers and a love poem for Terri on the day she whips Kevin’s other girlfriend’s ass. Terri throws the flowers into the middle of the shop floor, embarrassing Dinka and causing the entire place to yell out “DAAAAAAMMMN!!” “This ain’t no bullfight,” says Eddie under his breath.

Desperate, Dinka seeks help from Ricky, a pretty boy who has the roughneck edges that attract women. Ricky is trying to prove himself—he’s an ex-convict Calvin took a chance on—and whenever there’s a crime in the neighborhood, Detective Williams (Tom Wright) shows up to harass Ricky. After the ATM robbery, Williams sits in Ricky’s chair, threatening him with arrest if he finds out he’s involved. Ricky responds by intentionally running the clippers over the detective’s ear. BZZZZT! Ricky’s truck was used in the robbery, so Detective Williams and his chewed up ear will be back.

Also at odds with Ricky is Jimmy James, who thinks the barbershop job is beneath him because he is “edumacated.” Jimmy is a college educated know-it-all whose attitude is completely at odds with the other workers, including Isaac. Isaac loves rap music, has a really hot Black girlfriend, and is far more stereotypically Black than Jimmy could be even if he were possessed by J.D. Walker. Jimmy talks down to Ricky and annoys the rest of the shop. He thinks he can never be wrong, citing that scallops are not mollusks and the Indian shop owner whose ATM was stolen is Pakistani. “He better pack and stan’ his ass on the corner before they beat it,” says Eddie.

Political correctness is the farthest thing from Eddie’s mind. Representing the old school barber shop commentators, Eddie holds nothing sacred. He calls Martin Luther King a ho (he must have read Abernathy’s book), calls Dinka “Roots” and, in the film’s most controversial scene, treats Rosa Parks in far worse fashion than Outkast:

There are three things that Black people need to tell the truth about. Number one: Rodney King should've gotten his ass beat for being drunk in a Honda a white part of Los Angeles. Number two: O.J. did it! And number three: Rosa Parks didn't do nuthin' but sit her Black ass down!

When the Barbershop protests this, Eddie persists:

Wait, hold on here. Is this a barbershop? Is this a barbershop? If we can't talk straight in a barbershop, then where can we talk straight? We can't talk straight nowhere else. You know, this ain't nothin' but healthy conversation, that's all.

All these melodramas come to a head at some point in Barbershop. It turns out that the dumbass who robbed the ATM is Ricky’s cousin. Detective Williams barges into the barbershop to arrest Ricky because his cousin used Ricky’s truck AND left Ricky’s bumper at the scene of the crime. Kevin tries to sweet talk Terri back into his bed for the bazillionth time, only to be met with violent resistance by an unexpected source. Both Ricky and Isaac give Jimmy James a dressing down. And Eddie brings the fire that Mrs. Calvin didn’t when he discovers Calvin has sold the shop without so much as a warning to his employees:

This ain't no Goddamn school of the blind, Calvin! This is the barbershop! The place where a black man means something! Cornerstone of the neighborhood! Our own country club! I mean, can't you see that? Hell, that's the problem with your whole generation. You know, y'all... you don't believe in nothin'. But your father, he believed in something, Calvin. He believed and understood that something
as simple as a little haircut could change the way a man felt on the inside.

Twice in the film, Eddie’s theory is proven. One of Calvin’s customers has a penchant for not paying for his haircuts. Using a “job interview” as his latest excuse, he gets Calvin to cut his hair before running out without paying. Calvin uses this as an example of why he’s losing money on the shop and wants to close it, but after his decision, the guy shows up to finally pay for his haircuts. Seems his job interview excuse was no excuse at all. “I got the job,” he tells Calvin, something he might not have had the confidence to achieve with the tore up ‘do he had before Calvin shaped it up. With Eddie’s chastising words still ringing in his ears, Calvin refuses his money.

A haircut is also the reason Jimmy James comes to accept Isaac as something other than what he considers a poser. Jimmy James offers his own hair as a means of Isaac proving that he is worthy of not only the chair in Calvin’s shop but the pleasure of cutting Black hair. Isaac does a great job, and Jimmy James is humbled. To show he is the bigger man, Isaac makes no mention of Jimmy James’ earlier faux pas, where the latter does what we all feared whenever the clippers came toward our Afros back in the day: He accidentally cuts a bald spot in a customer’s head.

Since a sequel AND a spinoff were made from Barbershop, it’s no spoiler to reveal that Calvin keeps the shop open and staffed with the same cast. I was not enamored with Barbershop II, but like its predecessor, it provides a showcase for Cedric the Entertainer. Cedric inhabits Eddie with uncanny precision, from the physicality of an old man to the mumbly patois older Black men tend to have. He is hilarious in his comedic scenes, which makes his dramatic takedown of Calvin at the film’s climax effective and surprising. His nimble theft of every scene he is in is why the supporting actor Oscar category was created. No such fate befell Cedric the Entertainer.

Eddie is the primary reason one remembers Barbershop, but the other cast members hold their own. Sean Patrick Thomas is convincing as a bougie Negro, Troy Garity is the Blackest White boy since Vince Vaughn in Be Cool, and Leonard Earl Howze’s Dinka is far from the Prince Akeem clone his accent suggests. Michael Ealy’s Ricky gets a great speech late in the film, and makes a convincing ex-con. Ice Cube, primarily the straight man here, successfully juggles both a sense of mentorship toward his barbers and a schoolboy’s crazy pipe dreams of success.

Approaching the level of Eddie’s greatness is Eve’s Terri. She is all attitude, but like Eddie, under her bravada beats the heart of a sentimental fool. When things get too tense between Isaac and Jimmy James, she diffuses it with some Marvin Gaye on her radio.  When Dinka discovers her in the shop’s locker room, she first apologizes for her treatment of his flowers, then asks him about the poem he left with them. “It’s by Pablo Neruda,” he tells her. (I hope it was Neruda’s Me Gusta Cuando Callas.) “He knows what to say to a woman,” Terri tells Dinka. “You got me feeling all gentle.”  Considering what we’ve seen of Terri’s rage, this is fine praise indeed, and Eve makes you feel her vulnerability. In this brief moment, you see what Dinka sees in her, and you understand why he levels her trifling ex-boyfriend with one punch. 

Barbershop was the last good movie director Tim Story shot. After this, he helmed such disasters as Queen Latifah’s Taxi (she fares better in the Barbershop spinoff, Beauty Shop) and the Fantastic Four movies. This kicked off Ice Cube’s more family friendly fare like Are We There Yet, which is reason enough to condemn Barbershop, but stupid ATM plot aside, I can’t protest too much. Mr. Clarence would approve.

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