Barbershop (2002): Tim Story’s Hymn to Vibrant Tradition

By Kevin Bowen


Was there ever a barbershop as alive as the one found in the movie “Barbershop”? Not just a friendly place for a shave and a haircut but a boisterous experience all its own A place where a brewing fistfight melts into a soul song and a dance number, where a black man can dissolve into the soft comfort of shaving cream and say what’s really on his mind.  And however sentimental it might be, Tim Story’s film provides us with an affectionate hymn to a vibrant tradition.


The surprise hit suggests that in certain black communities, the local barbershop is less a business than a landmark. Calvin’s Barbershop has stood on the same corner in the south side Chicago since the 1950s. Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) took over the shop from his penniless father several years ago. Now he regards it less as family tradition than family burden. Back taxes are due, and the debt is through the ceiling. Besides, Calvin’s latest get-rich scheme means dropping the shop and starting a recording studio.


The buyer is the local shady businessman (Keith David), whose purple-suited fashion sense stopped evolving sometime around early Prince videos. That’s how we know that he’s evil. He wants to turn the shop into a strip club, despite promising Calvin otherwise. Calvin’s efforts to undo his bad deed provide the tale with the minimal plot it has.


Indeed, “Barbershop” is as much about the plot as the barbershop is about the haircuts. The real attraction is the live-wire banter ringing through its hydraulic chairs, where conversation is thought of as contact sport. The shop is the home for secrets, offensive, bull-shooting conversations–“our country club,” in the words of Eddie the barber (Cedric the Entertainer), the frosty-haired king and court jester. Long ago, the shop rose to the status of a neighborhood institution, a fact that Calvin only realizes after he gives it away.


A sometimes thoughtful, sometimes raunchy theater in the round, barbershop discussions range from politics to history to women’s behinds. The creative banters blend all three.  In one of the film’s most memorable riffs, Eddie trims down Rosa Parks and the most famous backside in civil rights history, and polishes it off with a vulgar reference to Jesse Jackson (a line that nearly stirred a boycott of the film). Every mild stereotype is present: the recovering felon (Michael Ealy), the college graduate (Sean Patrick Thomas), the white would-be gang-banger (Troy Garity), the poetry-loving West African immigrant (Leonard Earl Howze), the feisty young woman (Eve) less enraged by her cheating boyfriend than her disappearing apple juice.


Unfortunately, the film occasionally wanders out into the Lake Michigan chill. We could use less of the subplot with two crooks (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) tediously bumbling across the city, towing a stolen ATM machine toward its predictable rendezvous with the plot. Meanwhile, Calvin’s dealings with the loan shark are necessary but dry. Every time we leave the barbershop, our desire is to return; all we want to do is sit and soak in the lively discussion.


It’s strange to look at Ice Cube’s career. Has any hip-hop artist turned actor had as much success Would his angry, pioneering rap have predicted a screen presence this amiable, if not charismatic Cedric the Entertainer rarely has the opportunity to carve such a well-rounded comic creation as Eddie. He’s seen it all and lived to repeat most of it, a modern-day Nestor presiding over this little world.


Story’s work here, taken from a script by Englishman Mark Brown, owes a clear debt to Spike Lee, going so far as to occasionally imitate the harshly-angled close-ups of “Do the Right Thing.” Like Sal’s Pizza, the shop serves as the fulcrum of the community. Unlike Lee’s film, though, the shop isn’t the source of racial friction, but rather the main outpost of neighborhood camaraderie. This is clearly not a film headed for a riot, and Story will not throw trash cans through the barbershop window. “Barbershop” wears its communitarian soul on its apron, a movie about the value of building and keeping.


It’s therefore too bad that Story hasn’t followed his own advice.  By directing the two Fantastic Four movies, he has settled for Hollywood anonymity. With “Barbershop”’s two sequels, what was fresh became a moneymaking formula. Even so, that doesn’t prevent “Barbershop” from feeling like a sweet act of nostalgia, expressing not only a longing for a familiar place but a call for the values it represents. And if there never was an actual barbershop this alive, at least we have one in our minds.