I decided to screen this film on my evening class after I was forced to drop a proposed screening of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger after UK screening rights were withdrawn – such are the problems of running a course with public cinema screenings.
Barbershop is a substitute on a course looking at ‘Representations of the African-American family’. It’s a social comedy focusing on the barbershop in South Chicago run by Calvin (Ice Cube), a young man with a pregnant wife who has had the shop, set up by his grandfather in 1958, bequeathed to him by his father. However, Calvin would really rather be operating his own music studio. The action takes place over a single day with a number of subplots concerning the various barbers who each rent out a chair in the shop, but the central story concerns whether Calvin will come to understand what the legacy of the shop means. The narrative offers a metaphor of Black community life with the ‘community’ of barbers representing a kind of extended family.
I’m familiar with the role of the barbershop in Hollywood westerns and gangster films and in the tradition of the ‘barbershop singers’, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film specifically about the African-American barbershop before. What struck me most forcibly was the similarity in the casting and narrative conventions between this film and the UK television sitcom Desmonds. Written by St. Lucian-born Trix Worrell and starring the great Norman Beaton, Desmonds was set in a South London barbershop owned by a Guyanayan immigrant played by Beaton. The show aired in the UK on Channel 4 from 1989-94. 70 26 minute episodes focused on Desmond’s family, his assistant and the odd characters from the local community who used the shop like a social centre. The show eventually aired successfully on BET (Black Entertainment Television) in the US, Canada and in the Caribbean. In my view, Desmond’s was one of the all-time classic UK sitcoms. It was consistently funny and represented the diversity of African-Caribbean communities in London (at least, the ones I came into contact with). It moved from stereotypes into more detailed characterisations.
I’ve not seen any references to Desmond’s in coverage of the US film, but I’m sure that it will have been influential and I note that Barbershop has been followed by Barbershop 2, Beauty Shop and a Barbershop TV series. The recurring characters are the older wisecracking partner/friend, played in the US version by Cedric the Entertainer, the dodgy ‘spiv’ type character in the UK version who becomes a trio of characters in Barbershop, the ‘strong women’ (wife/daughter/employee), the white assistant who is more ‘black’ than everyone else, the African student/intellectual (again two different characters in the US version) and finally Desmond/Calvin as a character just as interested in music as running the shop.
It is the range of characters which both provides the basis for narrative conflict and comedy and the possibility of making some kind of comment on what is happening politically in the Black community. Barbershop deals in stereotypical Black characters – the hapless petty crooks, the gangster boss of the district – but it also attempts to deal with the mythology of the Civil Rights movement in the provocation offered by Cedric the Entertainer and the same character points out that the barbershop is both a legitimate Black business and a place that is a social space – part of the ‘public sphere’ for the community (though, of course, he doesn’t use that terminology). Calvin also has a moment when he sympathises with an Indian shopkeeper (part of the joke being that he had always assumed that the guy was a Pakistani).
I enjoyed the film. As is nearly always the case now, I watched it with the subtitles for the hard of hearing, and this means that I got most of the jokes. I was entertained, the film wasn’t offensive and it made me feel good about the world. It’s also a film about the lower middle-class and the ‘petty-bourgeoisie’ in Marxist films. Since the other two films I’m screening are about middle class African-American families this is a bonus.
Director Tim Story has an interesting CV with blockbuster credits (The Fantastic Four) and other African-American-themed films including Hurricane Season (2009) set in the aftermath of Katrina. Writer Mark Brown was born in the UK (Birmingham), but raised in Washington DC. His characters have made the Barbershop franchise the most lucrative in African-American Cinema history.