It’s OK to Talk Trash at the “Barbershop,” by Kimberley Jane Wilson

Even though the appeal of the “Barbershop” cannot be denied, controversy has a way of enhancing something’s popularity.

“Barbershop” first gained notoriety this past fall because Jesse Jackson demanded scenes he considered offensive be cut from the film and DVD. The DCD comes out on New Year’s Day, and the creators have stuck to their convictions.

“Barbershop” is one of the funniest flicks I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not saying it’s a great movie. No one’s going to confuse it with “The Godfather” or “Sophie’s Choice,” but it is entertaining. Underneath the laughs, it has a genuine message about what black people owe each other and what black businesses mean to their communities.

When I was little, my father and I went to our neighborhood barbershop every couple weeks to get his moustache and afro “shaped up.” The owner, Mr. Gus, was a lot like the character of Eddie (played by Cedric the Entertainer). He was a funny, plainspoken man who ran a no-frills, no-nonsense place serving mostly working-class guys. Men got haircuts and shaves, and older customers would occasionally get their gray hair “taken care of” in the back room. If a man came in wanting a shampoo or his nails done, he was told to go elsewhere.

Mr. Gus didn’t allow alcohol, but smoking was almost encouraged. Newspapers, dominoes, checkers and a can of nuts were set out for customers. Some guys stayed for hours. While cursing when women or children were present would get someone kicked out, Mr. Gus and the other barbers and customers spoke freely about everything from politics to cars to fashion. Sitting in one of the five shiny red leather chairs, my father and his buddies would solve all the world’s problems. I loved it. “Barbershop” did a pretty good job of recapturing those days for me.

There is cursing in the movie, and a couple of salty comments are made about two black icons – so what? As crude as the statements were, they weren’t bold-faced lies. In my grandmother’s home, there were four pictures on her living room wall: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Jesus Christ. Only one was without sin, and I don’t think I have to spell out which one.

I was raised to revere King’s memory, and rightly so. When my grandmother was my age she had to step into the gutter whenever passing a white person. She had to address all white men as “sir” and – like all black mothers in the South – she had to teach my uncles to keep their eyes on the ground whenever a white woman passed, lest they end up hanging from a tree. King and his public life changed all that.

According to his friends’ memoirs, King had relationships with women outside his marriage. His private life is discussed in books such as And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Bearing the Cross and Pulpit Confessions. I Shared the Dream, by Georgia Davis Powers, offered painfully frank details of her life and her intense attachment to King. Barbershop didn’t expose anything new.

As for Rosa Parks, it may shock you to know she was not the first black female to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white person. On March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a bus driver ordered Claudette Colvin to stand up so a white passenger could sit. She refused – a brave act for any black person, but especially for her because she was only 15. She was arrested and put on probation. In October of 1955, Mary Louise Smith, an 18-year-old housekeeper, also declined to give up her seat. Like Colvin, she was also arrested. Rosa Parks wasn’t arrested until December 1 of that same year.

Why did Parks become a national story while Colvin and Smith were ignored? The two teens came from poor backgrounds, and one became pregnant out of wedlock. Local civil rights leaders didn’t think Colvin and Smith were their kind of girls and balked at getting behind them. Parks was different. She was 42 and eminently respectable. She was also an NAACP secretary. It took courage to do what she did but – as “Barbershop” points out – she was not the first.

(Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21’s National Advisory Board and a conservative writer living in Virginia. She can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


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