The opening moments of Barbershop: The Next Cut address the same subject as the opening moments of Spike Lee's Chi-Raq: the gun violence that is plaguing the city of Chicago. Both movies feature somber quotes from Father Michael Pfleger, both seriously acknowledge the danger of being a black man in America and both want to inspire viewers to take positive action. Even so, these are two vastly different films. Chi-Raq is an audacious, polarizing cinematic experiment that makes a lot of bold moves and takes a lot of big risks. Barbershop is still Barbershop: funny, warm, down-to-earth. There's an audience for both approaches.
There's a twelve-year gap between this film and Barbershop 2: Back in Business, but the movie eases us back into this world so casually that it feels we're visiting a place we've been visiting on a regular basis. The relaxed “hangout movie” vibe hasn't changed a bit, though the setting has evolved: the central setting is now a hybrid barbershop/beauty salon, with men working on one side of the room and women working on the other. These movies have always been defined by flavorful, rambling conversations, but this adjustment opens the floor to a wider variety of viewpoints.
The shop seems to be thriving, but a number of developments are starting to make owner Calvin Palmer, Jr. (Ice Cube, Ride Along) wonder how much longer he can keep working on the South Side of Chicago. Shootings are a regular occurrence in the area, and Calvin suspects it's only a matter of time before violence reaches his shop. Regular customer and local politician Jimmy James (Sean Patrick Thomas, Save the Last Dance) has indicated that new measures may be taken to “clean up” the area, but those measures could hurt the business. Calvin eventually finds himself facing a hard choice: throw in the towel and move to the North Side, or dig in and try to find a way to help reduce gun violence in his community.
The decision Calvin lands on won't surprise you, but it's interesting to note that the need to take action on this urgent issue is the one area where the film takes a firm, definitive stance. Elsewhere, it opens the floor to a wide array of perspectives on a myriad of issues: the trivial, the important, the complicated. The conversation is vibrant and absorbing, as the large supporting cast (that includes the likes of Common, Nicki Minaj, Anthony Anderson, J.B. Smoove, Eve and a host of other recognizable faces) debate the merits of expensive weaves, corporal punishment, whether President Obama has done enough to directly support the African-American community, gang culture, the various levels of discrimination experienced by different minority groups and a large handful of other topics. The film lets its characters disagree without dismissing any of them... even Raja (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect), the Indian barber who votes Republican and frequently spouts “bootstraps” rhetoric.
These scenes crackle with energy, and the large ensemble's lively interplay easily compensates for the relatively flat staging (like the previous films – including the spin-off Beauty Shop - the movie often has the appearance of a filmed stage play). Once again, many of the biggest laughs are provided by the elderly Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer, still sporting that amusingly fake gray beard), though his button-pushing lines are a little tamer this time around (there's certainly nothing as provocative as, “Rodney King should've gotten his ass beat for being drunk in a Honda in a white part of Los Angeles!”). The film is funny, but earnestly starting a conversation – or rather, a series of conversations – seems to be a slightly bigger priority.
While a significant chunk of the film is set within the confines of the shop, the movie sags whenever it drifts elsewhere and attempts to become a more conventional movie. There's a subplot involving Calvin's son Jalen (Michael Rainey, Jr.) being drawn into the web of a local gang, and much of this has a distinctly “after-school special” vibe. The weakest material is the subplot involving Rashad (Common) attempting to resist the temptation to begin conducting an extramarital affair with his co-worker Draya (Minaj), which leads to some exasperatingly dumb sitcom-style gags.
Given the upbeat nature of this series, it's perhaps inevitable that the film's ending is a little too tidy. Even so, the film's willingness to tackle the heavy issue of gun violence within the confines of a mainstream studio comedy is bold. More often than not, the film finds a nice balance between humor and thoughtfulness. This world is a pleasure to revisit, and a welcome reminder of the diversity of perspectives that exist within the African-American community (in that regard, the film echoes another Spike Lee joint: the underrated Get on the Bus). I hope this series continues over the next few decades, with new installments arriving every few years to provide fresh conversations about fresh political and cultural topics.
Barbershop: The Next Cut
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2016