#BlackLivesMatter in Barbershop’s Love Letter to Chicago

#BlackLivesMatter in Barbershop’s Love Letter to Chicago May 2, 2016

I spent five formative years in my mid-twenties living in Hyde Park on the South Side, learning about racial divides and economic stratification in ways that only Chicago can teach.

And Barbershop: The Next Cut is above all else a love letter to Chicago.

The film finds Calvin’s barbershop sharing space with Angie’s beauty shop to save money and survive amidst continued economic vulnerability. Calvin (played by Ice Cube) locates their story squarely in the neighborhood: “The recession never left the South Side.” The film takes advantage of the gender-integrated space to play with issues like the time and money black women spend on hair, and the tendency to blame single women who seduce married men, rather than the men who break their vows with those women.

It also features conversations about race that question whether or not having a black president for eight years actually did any good for African Americans. In one impassioned speech, Rashad (played by Common), asks whether it saved Michael Brown or Tamir Rice, or whether it did any good for Eric Garner when his chokehold death was caught on video and still no one was held to account.

It’s one of the sharper moments of reality in the comedy.

Organizing the barbershop as a safe space with free cuts during a 48-hour weekend cease fire highlights the war zone mentality that led to the moniker Chiraq (and Spike Lee’s film of the same name last year).

Rather than directly take on the politics of guns, Barbershop relies on its characters and relationships to gently tease out both the pain and the hope enveloping the city. The side political story about a proposed enclosure that would essentially wall-in the neighborhood evokes images of a new kind of mass incarceration. Calvin and Jennifer come close to leaving their neighborhood behind in order to pluck their son out of daily interaction with gangs offering protection and cash.

Because sometimes escape seems to be the best option.

But there is no escape when it comes to white racist patriarchal obsession with guns.

There’s no escape when the capitalist empire expansion drives small businesses into the ground and replaces them with shelled out buildings to pass on the way to the suburban superstore.

There’s no escape when “making it” means leaving your community behind.

There’s no escape when you don’t have the options and resources to go somewhere else.

There’s no escape when that “somewhere else” is just as entrenched in white supremacist capitalism.

So what’s a barber to do? What are any of us to do?

Chicago_in_Flames_by_Currier_&_Ives,_1871Don’t forget, this is Chicago we’re talking about. There are a lot of explanations offered for it being referred to as the Second City; one of them is the fact that the entire city burned down in 1871 and what we have today is, in fact, the second Chicago. As the Chicago Historical Society notes, after the fire raged over 3 square miles for several days:

“At least 300 people were dead, 100,000 people were homeless, and $200 million worth of property was destroyed. The entire central business district of Chicago was leveled. The fire was one of the most spectacular events of the nineteenth century, and it is recognized as a major milestone in the city’s history.”

Of course, it’s the resurrection story that Chicagoans love to tell. How parts of downtown were built on its own ashes, filling out the lakefront that we flock to today. How it provided a laboratory for some of the finest American architects to innovate, experiment, practice, and perfect their style. How the Water Tower survived. How it’s a testament to the spirit of the city that it emerged stronger than ever after such devastation.

kids off blockThis is where Barbershop leaves viewers at the end. With the hope of dozens of neighborhood and grassroots organizations doing what they can, where they can. Sports teams, school groups, shops on the corner, parents and neighbors and business owners committing to rebuild one block at a time. I visited one of these organizations in the Roseland neighborhood, Kids Off The Block, a year and a half ago, and felt the despair captured by the memorial to victims of gun violence as well as the vibrant determination of founding director Diane Latiker. It’s a determination that faces this sharp point of despair and then finds points of hope that light a way forward.

Barbershop’s theme song is “Real People” for a reason.

Because they are the energy behind this city’s next resurrection.


Currier & Ives “Chicago in Flames” via wikimedia commons.


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