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September 28, 2002

Non Negotiable Demands redux


As you may recall, yesterday I decided to go see “Barbershop” on the theory that it was my duty as a freedom-loving American to patronize any film that the P.C. patrol was trying to censor. Being the man of action I am, I took my mother-in-law, my daughter and her friend to see this dangerous work of art that very same night, contributing a cool $30 to the movie’s bottom line (when did they raise the price of a standard movie admission to $9.50?)

Deeply Subversive Hit Movie

The movie is a largely successful remake of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” set in a modern-day poor black Chicago neighborhood. The hero, portrayed by Ice Cube, inherits a not-very-profitable family business (the titular barbershop). He, of course, has big dreams of his own and wants to ditch this unwanted inheritance. In the course of the film he comes to realize how much the community depends on his family’s barbershop and why it’s essentially up to him to defend the weaker members of that community, already menaced by urban blight and poverty, from the forces of evil represented by a sinister businessman/criminal. The director, Tim Story, although not as polished with his camera, has much the same touch as Capra did with actors, getting a series of energetic, vivid performances in the service of an ensemble comedy. (Rapper Eve, in particular, is a stand out in her first movie role.)

Talented Girl

The screenwriters, Mark Brown and Don D. Scott, made a rather interesting change in adapting the story, leaving out Clarence the angel of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and substituting for him the eccentric and ambiguous character of the barber Eddie. Played by Cedric the Entertainer and obviously representing the folk character of the “Trickster,” Eddie first enters the shop pretending to be a hold-up man and continues to stir things up throughout the film with his subversive opinions. These include a lack of reverence for the heroes of the civil rights movement; he seems to imply that putting such people on a pedestal undercuts the sense of personal moral responsibility and self-respect of the black community at large, whose own everyday life has a heroic element to it. This refusal to genuflect towards the P.C. altar is ostensibly what has landed the film in hot water with the P.C. patrol, although I’m guessing that Eddy’s belief in the redemptive quality of even a humble profession (cutting hair) and his insistence on complete freedom of expression within the sacred precincts of the black barbershop (“our country club”) is even more threatening to the patrol’s orthodoxy. Eddy is a one-man political pluralism movement, and obviously certain leaders in the black community who want followers rather than thinkers feel he needs to be stamped out, and fast. (Jesse Jackson and the King family have demanded “apologies” and Al Sharpton has threatened a boycott of the film if the producers don’t accede to his demand that Eddy’s central speech be censored from the home video version of the film.)

Education of a Right Wing Communitarian

What’s actually odd is that the film, despite its radical changes—e.g., Jimmy Stewart to Ice Cube (!)—remains astonishingly faithful to Capra’s political point of view, which I would dub “right-wing communitarian.” To see this philosophy pop up over 50 years later (in the black community, no less) and still enrage people is both amusing and a lesson in how overly reductive the common left-right classification is. I believe it was Pauline Kael who either coined or repeated the remark that somewhere there had to be a man who could do what Frank Capra did—and if you ever found him, you should shoot him. “Barbershop” seems to suggest that you may need to carry more than one bullet when hunting modern-day Capras.



posted by Friedrich at September 28, 2002


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