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'Barbershop' isn't offensive; it's reassuring

By Linda Wallace / September 30, 2002



PHILADELPHIA

Even before the box-office hit "Barbershop" had ended, I grasped the power of the moment in my neighborhood theater: An African-American audience felt liberated enough to look at the wrongs of the past and walk away laughing.

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Even though some civil rights leaders have been offended by jokes in the movie, they represent real strength – not the kind that comes from the ballot box or the boardroom, but the kind rooted in a heartfelt belief that a community's chief concern is its own viewpoint, not what others might think.

Ever since the civil rights movement, African-Americans have gauged power and progress to a degree by how well or poorly whites treated us or thought of us. Protect the image at all costs – that's the unwritten, unspoken mandate our children were taught. And it's certainly understandable once you stop and consider the image that some European Americans had developed of us, and presented to us, via the media. For decades, anytime a white made an offensive racial comment or statement, blacks went on the attack. Ground is harder to gain and easier to lose when you are the minority.

This strategy, however, does not fit the young African-American artists of today who are trendsetters in fashion, sports, and music. Hip whites now monitor what these black trendsetters think, say, and do – and not the other way around, as it was a generation ago.

Different generations wield power in different ways. But what happens when there is still only one set of leaders who try to represent the old and the young? You get a clash, the type of drama unfolding outside movie theaters showing "Barbershop."

In one two-minute "Barbershop" scene, Cedric the Entertainer – who plays a funny, off-the wall character named Eddie – pontificates in the hallowed halls of earning: the community barbershop. He wisecracks that since Rosa Parks was not the first black to refuse to ride on the back of the bus, she was not "special," just "tired." He goes on to tell the barbershop crowd, which soundly protests his assertions, that O.J. Simpson "did it," and Rodney King got what he deserved. He also takes a swipe at Jesse Jackson and makes quick mention of Dr. King's extramarital affairs.

"Is this a barbershop?" Eddie asks at one point. "If we can't talk straight in the barbershop, then where can we talk straight? You know this ain't nothing but healthy conversation. Ain't nobody exempt in the barbershop. You can talk about whoever, and whatever, whenever you want to."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, and a small band of African-American leaders and audience members, say they disagree. They are offended by the jokes, and Mr. Jackson asked MGM to cut the scene from the DVD and video release. (The studio, MGM, has politely said no way and announced plans for a sequel.)

Jackson argues the jokes intrude upon sacred territory and that certain historical figures – such as Rosa Parks and King – deserve our respect and admiration. He demanded an apology, and the film's producers, George Tillman Jr. and Bob Teitel, have said publicly they in no way meant to belittle any of the contributions made by these fine individuals.

I think that should end the matter. My mother taught me if someone is nice enough to apologize, the least I could do is accept it. Jackson, who has provided powerful leadership at critical junctures, may be overlooking the value of this moment.

As people heal from traumatic experiences, some may go back and look for humor in their misfortunes and missteps. To me, "Barbershop" is a film that announces in a very public way: The healing is under way, and we, as a people, are free to look at ourselves as human beings with great ability and, yes, a few flaws. We don't have to carry around the burden of that image any longer.

I did not see the scene as an act of irreverence but rather a blow for liberation. A people will never be free as long as they continue to fear truth. The truth is African-Americans, like every other race, are imperfect, and we have had great, heroic, but imperfect leaders, just like whites. The decades since the civil rights movement have brought us more than a quest for equal opportunity: It gave us the right to poke fun at ourselves now and then.

• Linda Wallace, a former journalist, is a Philadelphia-based cultural coaching consultant.

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