Let’s do something different this time: I’m just going to tell you all the bad stuff about Barbershop: The Next Cut right up front.
Barbershop: The Next Cut has way too many plotlines, and the main story is after-school special wish fulfillment. It has the aesthetics, score, and sensibilities of a Degrassi episode. The film wants to make Nicki Minaj a main character, but isn’t sure what to do with her. And while I know that Cedric The Entertainer is the heart and soul of this franchise, I can’t understand half the things that come out of his mouth.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why I don’t actually care about any of it.
Almost any transgression a film commits can be forgiven and overshadowed if the film has heart. Barbershop: The Next Cut is so straightforward and unashamed of what it is that you can’t help but find yourself loving it. It toes the line of cheesiness but also isn’t afraid of dropping the mic on some real issues and existing attitudes facing the African-American community. But it does so earnestly, without relying on gimmicks and mixed messages. (Looking at you, obvious comparison Chi-Raq.)
The most obvious reason this works is the collaboration between director Malcolm D. Lee and black-ish creator Kenya Barris, who serves as writer and producer here. Lee, creator of the Best Man series, specializes in African-American ensemble dramedy, but usually puts too much on his plate to balance either. He has a flat and indistinctive directing style which usually results in decent and enjoyable, if somewhat aimless, filmmaking. That’s why Barbershop: The Next Cut is Barris’ show. Kenya Barris writes scripts the way Springsteen writes songs: Bursting with sincerity and sentimentality which would feel cheap and corny coming from anyone else. (If you haven’t read Emily Nussbaum’s profile of Barris, do that now. She has a Pulitzer, I can wait.)
In this chapter, hard times have fallen on barbershop owner Calvin (Ice Cube) and his best friend Rashad (Common). To stay in business, Calvin has merged his shop with Angie’s (Regina Hall) beauty parlor, breaking the sacred “no girls allowed” laws of the barbershop. But there are bigger worries at play as local gang violence begins pouring into the shop and Calvin and Rashad begin to suspect their young teen sons may be joining. Meanwhile, Rashad’s marriage to Terri (Eve) struggles due to her work schedule and suspicions anout heavily sexualized co-worker Dreya (Minaj). Making matters worse, former-barber-turned-city-councilman Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) arrives to tell the shop about an impending decision to wall off their section of the neighborhood in attempt to keep the gang violence from spreading. Desperate to stop the barricade, the Barbershop crew pull together to perform a “cut-in”, negotiating a 48-hour cease-fire between two gang leaders and offering a weekend of free cuts and styles as long as the shop remains a Switzerland-like neutral ground. Calvin agrees reluctantly while struggling to decide whether to give up and move his shop and family to a safer neighborhood.
This is just the main plotline;, I haven’t gotten into any of the film’s several subplots surrounding its supporting players. Yet even while balancing all this, there’s still time to pause the movie and have lengthy discussions discussing gender politics, systemic racism, black people “selling out” (a common theme of Barris’) and the general disconnect between governing bodies and the African-American community. Appropriately enough, these are the best moments of the film, when the entire ensemble gets to shoot the shit, as one does in a barbershop.
I don’t necessarily agree with all the points being made (especially the slightly confusing slut-shaming directed at Minaj’s character), but they are points that need to be addressed, and addressed by someone who knows. Barris’ “time to fix things for ourselves” message could be construed as patronizing, but here it is primarily an optimistic rallying cry. And unlike the lip service Spike Lee pays in Chi-Raq, this film concludes by highlighting actual, successful revitalization projects in Chicago.
This is a film essentially about conflict resolution, one which substitutes macho posturing for discussions of feelings. The good thing about this is that we are spared a happy ending where Calvin negotiates a permanent truce when even the 48 hours was pushing fantasy levels. Unfortunately, the sheer scope of what’s happening glosses over some of the more interesting points where posturing could make for good drama. An example is Calvin and Rashad’s friendship struggling as they fight over which of their sons is a bad influence on the other. Another is Calvin fighting with a school principal over their inability to keep his son safe. Common and Cube have both grown into fantastic actors, and this dialogue fraught with anger, confusion, and sensitivity flows from them naturally, like it was a verse that they wrote.
Look, as a white Jew from backwoods Oregon who is at this moment wearing khaki shorts and a polo, I am about the last person who should be writing about inner-city African-American culture but I can recognize when someone keeps it 100.
Barbershop:The Next Cut deals with a lot of ideas regarding identity, culture, and perception which don’t get addressed often, and certainly not in ways that drop references to Hoop Dreams, Amber Rose, and Lupita Nyong’o’s hair. It puts to rest the silly (and more than a little racist) idea of “cross-cultural appeal.” If a movie can be this unashamedly rooted in Black culture and still be funny to the whitest person in the room, then it proves there need be no segregation in our movie classification.
A quick note on Cedric the Entertainer’s “Eddie” character: I realize he’s essential to the franchise, but he’s the only one who still feels like a character in a movie. So here, he plays Barris’ admitted “old-school” side, the side that still has reservations about changing gender roles and wonders if he’s making a mistake by not spanking his kids. It’s the same role Laurence Fishburne has in black-ish. It’s an interesting transition, relegating these ideas to a man the film calls “Negrosaurus.” It resonates some of the underlying themes about changing ideals and values sneaking into established traditions (like the inclusion of women in the shop.) Barbershop: The Next Cut is a self-conflicted film, but it’s earned the right to be. There’s a lot of components working here, and it’s real enough to work itself out in the end.
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