My Summer of Ice Cube Continues: Two Views of Black Chicago’s Past

My Summer of Ice Cube Continues: Two Views of Black Chicago’s Past July 24, 2019

I recently revisited the immensely pleasurable 2002 comedy Barbershop, set in pretty much the year it was made in a struggling Chicago neighborhood; and read Eric Charles May’s Bedrock Faith, a 2014 novel looking back on a slightly wealthier slice of black Chicago society in the bad old days of 1993. Pairing them is somewhat artificial, I know, but for what it’s worth, they are both concerned with coming home after prison and the possibility of a second chance–this is a subplot in Barbershop and the central plot in Bedrock Faith. Barbershop focuses a lot more on generational conflict and (yet) religion is absent. Bedrock, as the title implies, is an exploration of several forms of black Christianity.

Barbershop is just so much fun. It’s a comfort-watch. A married man with a baby on the way would rather chase get-rich-quick schemes than try to save the failing barbershop his father left him. Over the course of a long day he learns the true meaning of the barbershop as a place where the community (black men especially, but not exclusively) can feel truly at home and free. Cedric the Entertainer is masterful as Eddie, a trolly oldhead; Eve is fantastic as Teri, a tough chick with a soft heart; Keith David is a slithering, purring, glinting villain, a fancy lowlife who wants to buy the barbershop and turn it into a strip club. And Ice Cube is at the center of it all, making every line and situation feel completely real and lived-in. Mr. Cube always delivers.

There’s a subplot about a stolen ATM and an ex(ish)-criminal kid considering the straight life, the climax of which relies on Illinois having a three-strikes law, something I don’t think it ever actually enacted. Possibly the scriptwriter had spent too much time under California’s notoriously harsh laws.

Both here and in Friday Ice Cube’s character spends a good amount of time being lectured by his elders on how Kids Today don’t know how to act, don’t have respect for the eternal verities, e.g. fistfights and shaving. I love how seriously these two comedies take that perspective. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but generational self-righteousness has once more intruded into our public consciousness. “Ice Cube as put-upon, directionless Gen X-er constantly lectured by his crazy-ass Boomer elders, who hide their sacrifices behind a smokescreen of nonsense” is a self-deprecating version of generational conflict, open to humiliation and therefore to reconciliation and mutual sacrifice.

As in Friday the day is saved through some extremely unbelievable circumstances which validate the beloved characters’ choices. This time it all works out all right! (Doing well by doing good, the great American heresy.) Here the deus ex machina is the Chicago PD which… if you thought the TSA ex machina in Get Out was #problematic you ain’t seen nothing yet, basically.

Via IMDB I learn the true solution to one of the movie’s mysteries: “On the DVD we see that it was Eddie that drank Teri’s apple juice.” Eddie, you old devil!

Barbershop is a perfectly-executed example of a simple formula. Bedrock Faith is trying something a lot more complex, and if it doesn’t really pull it off, I still don’t know of other books which even attempt it.

Bedrock Faith starts the fateful day that “Stew Pot” Reeves comes home to Parkland. Stew Pot was the curse of this solidly middle-class black neighborhood. He set fire to garages; he killed a lady’s cat and left its head in her mailbox. When he finally got caught and went away for rape the neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief. But now he’s back–and he’s a Bible-believing Christian. On his very first day he comes to Mrs. Motley, the lady whose garage he burned, and gets down on his knees to apologize. He asks her for a Bible and she, feeling like she can’t say no, hands one over (not her favorite one, but she’s got a few spares, you know how it is).

The new Stew Pot becomes just as much a problem for the neighborhood as the old one. He’s become a fire-and-brimstone Christian, willing to humiliate himself to repent his own sins but also very very interested in exposing others’. The neighborhood takes sides, and Stew Pot begins campaigning against the people he sees as notorious sinners, including a woman he wants who turns out to be what he calls “a lesbianite.”

May’s prose is utilitarian, with a tendency to overdescription or overspecification–I’m not actually driving these streets so I don’t know that I need a GPS map of them; I don’t need every detail of the architecture of the houses. It’s a fine line between acute social observation (or nostalgic recognition) and weighing the narrative down with unnecessary detail. The characters are types, with just enough coloring to make them types you can feel for. Mrs. Motley is an especially good creation, a sincere Christian whose Christianity has never exposed her to ridicule or danger–until Stew Pot’s return. I also enjoyed the Mance brothers, all of whom are either criminals or cops; the main Mance brother polices the neighborhood where he grew up, and does it with relish. If gossip had a gun, it would be this Mance brother.

What makes the book stand out is its satirical edge: Stew Pot is both funhouse mirror of the neighborhood’s gossipy Christianity, and divine avenger of all its hidden folly. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. The best “novels of place” aren’t propaganda for a place; we see what there is to love in a place most clearly through the lens of its suffering and its sins.

Both the climax and the denouement are weak. The final chapter wanders into cliched speculation on the nature of the divine, and May doesn’t figure out what to do with Stew Pot once he’s done his work of exposure. Still, this is a striking, memorable, and often grimly funny variation on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Anybody who longs to live among Good Christian Neighbors, or who has ever used the phrase “radical hospitality,” will laugh and wince at this portrait of a local penitent/scourge.

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