Cut the Controversy Over “Barbershop,” by Agnes Cross-White and Sherman R. White, Jr.

When it seems black cinema is preoccupied with excusing the worst elements of the African-American experience, “Barbershop,” has taken the novel approach of celebrating its best elements. It features a lively and very likeable cast exchanging intelligent dialogue in an entertaining story with a message. Yet, it is controversial.

In the movie, rapper Ice Cube is a surprisingly nice fit as a family man and struggling business owner. Other cast members range from female rapper Eve to Cedric the Entertainer, who conspire to deliver uplifting messages about the value of self-respect, personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, community, family and diversity. Barbershop communicates its positive messages with wit, style and optimism. It displays images of African-American culture that have unfortunately gone missing in many recent offerings.

In Barbershop, you meet an ambitious expectant father and his pregnant wife who are working together to build their future. There is also a young African-American woman demanding the respect to which she is entitled. Throughout, African-American characters also give themselves permission to be diverse in their opinions. Furthermore, the movie shows tolerance of those who are not African-American.

Barbershop is not a movie about blaming “the man” or “the system” for every ill in the African-American community. It is not a movie about poverty, pity or despair. It is, however, a movie about history, hope, ambition and optimism that attempts to show the connection between the struggles of previous generations and the challenges facing the current generation. In short, it’s a movie about black people, their concerns, opinions and ambitions told without gratuitous foul language, sex or violence.

With so much working in its favor – including being number one at the box office for a few weeks – it seems inconceivable that Barbershop could be at the center of controversy. That is, until you evaluate who’s leading the charge.

Controversy has erupted over a few lines that Cedric the Entertainer’s character makes regarding his own interpretation of civil rights history. When confronted over the issue of whether Rosa Parks was entitled to the deification that civil rights folklore has bestowed upon her, Cedric’s character reminds his barber shop audience of the contributions made by many less-famous individuals.

“Don’t let Jesse Jackson hear you talk like that,” he is admonished. “F- Jesse Jackson!” responds Cedric’s character.

At once, a mythological, monolithic African-American community is transformed into a vibrant and diverse collection of individuals exchanging ideas. It’s an entertaining and essential scene in the movie. It is also the scene Jesse Jackson finds offensive. Along with radio host Tom Joyner, Jackson has demanded and received an apology from the producers of the movie. Some Jackson supporters want a boycott of the movie, saying the statements within the movie are disrespectful to Jackson, King and Parks.

Not satisfied with an apology, Jackson further requested offending scenes be deleted when the movie is released on video. In a country where citizens have the right to criticize the government, criticism of Jesse Jackson or rejecting his authority seems to be off-limits.

One cannot help but wonder where Jackson’s protests are when popular black cinema celebrates illegitimacy, violence, criminality and ignorance. Tom Joyner condemns the movie while proudly proclaiming he won’t see it. Perhaps the insensitivity of the movie’s creators should be the issue, but rather the intolerance of Jackson and his supporters.

For a long time, the African-American political left has served to remind us of the importance of diversity. It is both disappointing and unfortunate that their definition of diversity seems not to include diversity of thought or opinion. In the end, I hope people will give themselves permission to do what the African-American characters in Barbershop gave themselves permission to do: To think for themselves, form their own opinions and share their opinions with others through open, honest and constructive dialogue.

Barbershop is a special movie that everyone – left, right and all places in between – should see.


(Agnes Cross-White, an associate of the African-American leadership organization Project 21, is the publisher of the Charlottesville Tribune in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sherman R. White, Jr. is her son. They can be contacted at [email protected].)

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

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.