Film: Alternate Worlds

One of the insufficiently appreciated functions of the novel, as Bernard DeVoto once pointed out, is its unrivaled power to teach. How many of us learned what we “know” about Victorian England from Dickens and Trollope? Or about New York politics from The Bonfire of the Vanities? It is, I think, fundamental to the appeal of the novel that it can introduce us to other, less familiar worlds from which we are separated by time, geography, or simple unawareness. I spent several years living in Baltimore while working on a biography of H.L. Mencken, yet I learned as much about the place from reading Laura Lippman’s mysteries, which are set in Baltimore, as I did through firsthand observation—for her books helped me make sense of what I was seeing.

Movies do much the same thing, except that instead of telling us, they show us. The difference is important, for in a visually oriented culture like that of postmodern America, pictures speak louder than words and have the ring of truth. Until persuaded otherwise by information to the contrary, we usually believe what we see. Hence the mischief that is made by a director like Oliver Stone when he releases a fact-twisting film like JFK—and hence, too, the wholly unmischievous significance of Tim Story’s Barbershop, a far more honest and infinitely less pretentious comedy, which introduces its viewers to a part of America most of us never get to see.

Barbershop is set in a black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Most of the action takes place in or near a 40-year-old barbershop owned and run by Calvin (Ice Cube), who inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father. Tired of the daily grind of running a small business on a crime-ridden block, Calvin sells the shop to a well-heeled loan shark (Keith David), who then reveals that he means to turn it into a “gentlemen’s club” (i.e., a strip joint). Horrified, Calvin tries to cancel the deal, but the loan shark tells him he’ll have to put up twice as much cash to buy back the shop.

The rest you can probably figure out, though the plot doesn’t matter much. Truth be told, Barbershop is about atmosphere, not storytelling. If you know anything at all about black life, you’re probably aware that barbershops fulfill the same function in urban ghettos that they once did in small towns. People go there to hang out, see friends, catch up on gossip, and shoot the breeze. In Barbershop, you get to eavesdrop, and that’s the good part, for while the plot is unoriginal, the small talk is completely convincing, in tone and content alike.

No doubt you’ve read about how Jesse Jackson took umbrage at a scene in which Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), the resident sage, sounds off irreverently about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackson himself. Jackson asked for an apology, which he got (sort of), and demanded that the scene be cut, which didn’t happen. When I saw Barbershop in New York, the mostly black audience whooped with joy as Eddie gleefully trotted out his unprintable line about Jackson. I don’t much blame Jackson for having gotten mad, though, since he must have realized that the bluntly dismissive way in which he is mentioned in Barbershop speaks volumes about the way he is really seen in the black community, as opposed to the “black community” that exists in the imagination of liberal white journalists.

But, then, all of Barbershop is like that. Time and time again, Eddie and his friends speak bluntly of the need for black self-reliance—which is, not to put too fine a point on it, the theme of the movie itself. For they are “strivers,” upwardly mobile lower-middle-class blacks who are doing their best to raise their families and earn a decent living. To them, drugs are a scourge and black-on-black crime a self-inflicted wound, and among themselves they talk of such matters not with self-pity or paranoia but with the moral outrage of true believers in the gospel of individual responsibility.

It’s no secret that blacks as a group, for all their celebrated propensity to vote Democratic, are nonetheless far more conservative than whites on most social issues. On the other hand, it’s one thing to sift through poll data and another thing to see it flickering on a movie screen. To be sure, the world of Barbershop seems at first glance an alien place, peopled by actors with names like Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, and Eve. Their accents are different, their slang is different, their music is different. (Ice Cube is a famous rapper turned movie star.) But by film’s end you have come to understand that the hard-working patrons of Calvin’s barbershop want pretty much what you want out of life, know how to get it, and have no patience with the irresponsible wastrels who are stopping them from realizing their modest middle-class dreams.

The nice thing about Barbershop is that its moral message is mainly conveyed through indirection, not preaching. Watch it and you’ll spend most of your time laughing, which is as it should be. Watch it again and you’ll appreciate both the subtle point-making and the wonderfully plausible dialogue, for which Mark Brown, Don D. Scott, and Marshall Todd, the screenwriters, deserve an Oscar. Ice Cube is a bit on the stolid side, but that’s fine—he’s supposed to be the regular guy at the center of the comic storm. The rest of the ensemble cast is splendid, especially Cedric the Entertainer, who deserves his self-bestowed title.

It hasn’t escaped my notice, by the way, that the plot of Barbershop is lifted more or less directly from It’s a Wonderful Life, minus the angel. The truth of this lovely little movie lies in the telling, not the tale. Andy Tennant’s Sweet Home Alabama, by contrast, contains no truth at all, which is why it did even better at the box office than Barbershop. It’s a big-budget romantic fantasy in which Reese Witherspoon leaves her white-trash Alabama husband, moves to Manhattan, becomes a successful fashion designer, falls for the mayor’s son, drives back home to get a divorce, realizes that she’s Really a Southern Girl After All, dumps her fiancé, moves back in with her hottie husband, and lives happily ever after.

Except for the acting, which is uniformly excellent, every inch of Sweet Home Alabama is candy-coated with a thick shell of falseness. Small towns aren’t like that, juke joints aren’t like that, trailer parks aren’t like that—and, above all, human beings aren’t like that, though Witherspoon is so fine an actress that she briefly fools you into identifying with the preposterous character she’s playing. (I actually shed a tear at one point and immediately hated myself for it.) Even fantasies have to be convincing on their own unreal terms, and this one is far too shameless about its own phoniness.

If you want to see a sweet-tempered romantic comedy about an impossibly idyllic small southern town, rent Michael Caton-Jones’s Doc Hollywood (1991), which spoofs its own clichés with engaging grace. If you want to see Witherspoon in action, rent Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), a joltingly dark satire in which she reveals herself to be a comic actress of the first order. And if you’re looking for a good movie with a happy ending, one whose fantasy is firmly rooted in the humble realities of everyday life, go see Barbershop, for whose unassuming charms I enthusiastically vouch.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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