It all takes place during a single winter’s day on Chicago’s South Side. Calvin has always wanted more from life than he’s been given. He wants to be a record producer. He wants to live the high-life. Instead he has to run a barbershop. His granddad opened the place in 1958. He passed it down to his dad. His dad then passed it down to him when he died.
Calvin is broke. Business is far from booming. His wife’s pregnant. And the bank is fixing to foreclose on his shop. So on the spur of the moment, he sells the barbershop to a local loan shark for 20 grand. He immediately wishes he hadn’t. The slice of life shown onscreen during that one day at the barbershop shows us why. History. Heritage. Self-respect. Friendship. All of these ideals and relationships are begging him to keep his business. But he’s already taken the money and the guy he took it from doesn’t take too kindly to sudden changes of heart.
Meanwhile, two local wannabe gangstas take it upon themselves to steal an ATM from the corner convenience store. Woven throughout Calvin’s colorful barbershop experiences is a comical look at their struggle to break it open and steal the cash.
"Stop your cussin’!" Calvin shouts above the din. "This ain’t no Def Comedy Jam!" It’s not the only time Calvin interjects a voice of reason into this absorbing script. And he’s not the only one being reasonable. While "the din" in the barbershop sometimes resembles cable news shout-fests, and many comments are barbed, a lot of good things get said. Nobody comes up with the secret to life, but there are some hints.
"It takes respect to get respect," one barber insists.When the discussion turns to whether Tony Roma’s makes better BBQ than African Americans do, another barber quips, "I don’t see black or white, I just see red sauce all over everything."
"We have to have a sense of history," says another.
A shop owner from India lavishes praise on Calvin for his kind words after the ATM theft saying, "We are often unaware that little words to us are so big to others." Calvin’s wife expresses pride over the way he has stuck it out with the barbershop even when he didn’t want to. In an It’s a Wonderful Life moment, a man gives tribute to Calvin’s father for "investing in people" instead of money.
Part of Calvin’s motivation for trying to get his shop back is that the loan shark tells him (after the deal is done) that he’s going to turn the barbershop into a strip club. Calvin hates that idea. Calvin also urges a friend not to resort to violence when he’s been wronged ("People like that always get theirs").
spiritual content: Social consciousness and the bettering of oneself is, unfortunately, never linked to spiritual things. Jesus does, however, come up in casual conversation a couple of times. "Jesus wasn’t a Christian," one barber insists, trying to prove his superior intelligence. "He was a Jew!" In another scene, when one barber instructs a colleague on the fine art of wooing women, he tells him he has to put up a strong front and make his lady feel safe. "You gotta put the pimp-hand down on Jesus himself if he disrespects her," he says.
sexual content: One discussion centers on the difference between a "big-a--" woman and a woman with a "big a--." And that’s precisely the anatomical location that one amorous lover grabs. And it’s the same posterior position that guys ogle on at least two occasions. There’s an uncomfortable moment when the conversation shifts to female circumcision, but with a shiver the men move on quickly when they find they have very little to say on the subject. A few blouses show off cleavage and posters in the back room feature bikini-clad models. The loan shark promises to turn the shop into a strip club and makes a crude comment about clients having sex with the dancers. A cheating boyfriend insults his girl by telling her he only liked her because of "that thing you did in bed." There are also innuendoes and double entendres about prison assaults, Viagra and impotence.
violent content: The film opens with a robbery. Two thieves back a truck through a store window. Several fistfights break out and include hitting, slapping, pushing and tackling. A guy kicks a little girl in the backside to make her stay out of his room. A thief’s hand (and later his foot) gets crushed (but not mangled) while trying to get away with the ATM. A woman takes a baseball bat to a car, smashing windows and denting the body. When a man lunges for a woman as if to hurt her, another man lays him out cold with a punch to the face. A thug points a gun at Calvin and another man, threatening to shoot them. Police officers storm a garage, pistols drawn.
crude or profane language: Two distinct f-words and another one or two that aren’t finished (a woman uses the initials MF as a substitute for the obscenity). About a dozen s-words and a slew of "a--es" (close to 50). God’s name is abused (four times in conjunction with "d--n"). Women are referred to as "b--ches" and "ho’s." Other mild profanities push the total over 100.
drug and alcohol content: One character smokes what looks like a joint. Another smokes a cigarette.
other negative elements:
Numerous cutting jokes are told at others' expense. Racially charged putdowns are traded. Characters lie, extort and steal.
conclusion: In the tradition of Boyz N the Hood, Kingdom Come and Save the Last Dance, Barbershop immerses moviegoers in the life and culture of an ethnic community while inspiring them with themes of social responsibility, cultural heritage, love for family and respect for self. It’s loaded with coarse language, a clutter that does dim the film’s brightness but doesn’t quench its flame. A large amount of the negative material serves to illustrate positive messages. Crime doesn’t pay. Respect is a great equalizer. Racial pride should never eclipse truth and justice. Families mean everything. Hard work is the best—and only way—to truly get ahead. And tradition means far more than your average 20-year-old thinks it does.
Despite the prevailing sharp tone and irreverent attitudes, conversations illuminate an immensely important point: African Americans don’t all think and act alike. People of all races should heed that lesson. In the barbershop, hotly debated topics include reparations for slavery, Rosa Parks’ contribution to the Civil Rights movement, O.J. Simpson’s guilt and Rodney King’s beating. Eddie, the shop’s resident "old guy," blasts fellow blacks for making Parks an icon while "a bunch of others" did exactly what she did and were rewarded with a stint in jail, not lifelong recognition. He spouts that King deserved his beating for driving drunk and that O.J. was guilty and should have been put behind bars. Reparations? He’s not the only one to voice an opinion on that subject. "We don’t need reparations," says one, "we need restraint." Eddie’s unexpected views (and those of others who either agree with him or expand on his rants) are greeted with howls at first, but they aren’t disregarded, creating what Eddie calls "a healthy dialogue."
"The film is definitely about community," says producer George Tillman, Jr. "It’s a film about relationships and how much your life means to other people. Sometimes we look at ourselves and wish we could be doing something better with our lives. Then something happens and we realize our lives and what we do are very important. ... Sometimes you don’t realize how important you are to other people, and then something happens that wakes you up to that fact." Barbershop is certainly not "quality family viewing," but if those who do choose to experience it have the wisdom to sort out what's constructive criticism and what's just plain crude and rude, it has the potential of being a positive cultural force—even if the only way it does it is to generate heated water-cooler talk at the office.