This weekend gives us The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Next month, we have Neighbors 2 and Alice Through the Looking Glass. This after we’ve already suffered through Ride Along 2, London Has Fallen, God’s Not Dead 2, the list goes on.
Yes, 2016 is shaping up to be an awful year in cinema. Largely because even more than most years, 2016 is loaded with sequels that were neither wanted nor needed.
Then we have Barbershop: The Next Cut, the third entry in a franchise that I had personally forgotten even existed. In point of fact, I’ve never seen a single one of the films and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of them. As such, I honestly don’t know the state of the franchise and if there were any fans either clamoring for a sequel or begging to leave well enough alone.
That said, the trailer looked promising. A movie that comments on mass shootings and racial inequality, built on existing relationships with years of onscreen history? And it’s actually funny? Shit, this could be like a more light-hearted, less inflammatory version of last year’s Chi-Raq. We could definitely use something like that (no slight to Spike Lee’s picture, of course).
As it turns out, the comparison was even closer than I had realized going in. For one thing, it turns out that this movie was directed by Malcolm D. Lee — Spike’s cousin. Even better, this is another film set in the rampant gang-related violence of the Chicago south side. And it’s also a film rooted in authentic outrage, in which the characters decide to try and make their neighborhood into less of a war zone. The comparisons pretty much end there, however.
To start with, Chi-Raq opens with some bizarre rap song that plays while the lyrics are put up onscreen. Barbershop: The Next Cut, however, opens with an Earth, Wind, and Fire song. I sincerely wish that more movies opened up with Earth, Wind, and Fire music. If there’s any better way to instantly get an audience in the mood for some good times, I don’t know it.
The titular barbershop is… well, it’s a barbershop. It’s a place where people come in to get their hair cut and styled, while the barbers and usual customers all shoot the breeze together. Even better, this particular barbershop is split right down the middle, divided into a more conservative men’s barbershop and a more upscale women’s boutique. So we’ve got a mix of old and young, male and female, all black people save only for one Indian-American, all gathered in one place to talk about whatever.
It sounds like a loose premise, in large part because it is. But there are a number of reasons why it works. To start with, the chemistry of the entire cast is on fire from start to finish. So when the characters spit out some harsh truths or make fun of each other, everyone knows that it comes from a place of sincere love. In turn, this means that the characters have a lot of license to be as blistering and incisive as they possibly can be, either to tell a joke or make a point.
Which brings me to the far more important factor: So much of this feels authentic. When the characters vent about racial inequality, distrust for the government, raising kids in what’s basically a war zone, and living in constant danger between gangs shooting at each other, everything they say comes across as honest and passionate. It also helps that the characters hold actual debates on the subject, with different characters presenting different points of view. Thus the issues at hand are presented as appropriately complex, without pretending to have any easy answers or condescending to the audience.
Everything about the film revolves around communication and interpersonal connection. The filmmakers are all about the message that the world might be a more peaceful place if we could all just settle our differences long enough to have a respectful, thoughtful, constructive talk with each other. It wouldn’t stop people from dying, of course — sure enough, the shop is rocked by a shooting death near the start of the third act. But then, in an ongoing battlefield, every second that passes without someone getting shot is a step in the right direction.
The other crucial message is to keep hope alive. Giving up is easy, same for packing up and running, but what does that ultimately solve? When all is said and done, we have to take responsibility for our own problems, stand by our homes and loved ones, and put effort into figuring out how those problems happen. Because if we won’t fix what’s broken, who will?
The plot may be very loose, with a structure that’s either nonexistent or boilerplate, but it works because the themes are powerful and relevant enough to hold everything together. When Ice Cube’s character has to figure out how to raise his teenage son in a community overrun with gang violence, and when differences of opinion on that subject drive a wedge between him and Common’s character, it works. When Ice Cube dithers about whether to move the barbershop to a safer place on the north side, it works. When Cube’s son (played by Michael Rainey Jr.) is pressured to join a gang because it brings him a sense of security and belonging, it works. Hell, even when the characters are bantering in the shop and nothing else is happening, there’s still an underlying tension because we know that gunshots could come from nowhere at any moment.
Unfortunately, this stuff is so powerful and it rings so true that it only draws more attention to the superfluous fluff. Common gets a whole “marital unhappiness” love triangle with Nicki Minaj and Eve, and the whole unnecessary subplot falls flat. The plotline with Ice Cube and his son works great, right up until the saccharine ending. There’s another love subplot that gets shoehorned into the last ten minutes, apropos of nothing. Cedric the Entertainer and J.B. Smoove get a few laughs, but their characters are pathetically flat and frequently annoying. But the booby prize goes to Anthony Anderson, here playing an alleged entrepreneur supposedly running a non-profit kitchen to help solve gang violence. It’s a potentially interesting idea that goes absolutely nowhere and ends up contributing nothing.
(Side note: I suppose I should also mention a joke near the end that references Prince. Obviously, the filmmakers couldn’t have known about something that came entirely out of nowhere only a few days ago, but that definitely stung a little all the same.)
Aside from that, the cast works so well as an ensemble that it almost seems unfair to single out any other actors. That said, producer Ice Cube is undeniably the star here, as he gets most of the screen time and subplots. He does a good job with it, and there’s little doubt that a huge part of the film’s moral outrage comes from him. It amuses me that less than a year ago, Ice Cube came out with a biopic and reminded everyone of a time when he openly condoned violence. (Admittedly violence against police officers as opposed to gang violence, but still.) He used to be one of the most dangerous men in America. Now he’s making a film that actively discourages young black men from picking up guns. Not that I’m complaining, of course, but how fatherhood changes a man.
I think a few words on Nicki Minaj are also in order. To be perfectly blunt about it, Minaj has a very limited range. When it comes to acting like the sexiest woman in the room, so full of confidence and attitude that she knows damn well she doesn’t have a thing to prove to anyone, there are precious few ladies on the planet who can sell that like Nicki Minaj. It’s easily her greatest strength as a rapper, and it serves her well as an actress. But anything outside of that is way more than she can handle. Which is a huge part of why she contributes so much to the barbershop banter and also why the whole “love triangle” storyline doesn’t work.
Barbershop: The Next Cut is very uneven, but the good ultimately outweighs the bad. It’s a light and disposable little heartfelt comedy, but never in a way that trivializes the very real dangers that we’re living with right now. If anything, the film’s lightweight tone is delivered in such a way that it emphasizes the need to stay optimistic and to keep on believing in ourselves and each other if everything is gonna turn out okay. It could potentially have been such a cloying message, but the comic relief and cynicism balance each other out in such a way that it’s much easier to take the message to heart.
It’s funny, it’s passionate, it’s uplifting, and it’s relevant. Though that doesn’t make it perfect. But in a quality-starved year like the one we’ve got so far, that’s more than enough.