Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2002/ 24 Tishrei, 5763
Jackson, Sharpton and buddies need to chill-out
The comedic movie that has certain black reverends upset is cause for anything but outrage. In fact, rather than being disrespectful toward black history and black leaders, Barbershop is a celebration of blackness that may be the best predictor yet for racial harmony in this country.
Why? Because it makes us laugh at ourselves. Not blacks and/or whites, but us frail and flawed human beings. When the laughter starts, the healing begins.
The movie, which was written, produced and directed by African-Americans and features a cast of all-star black entertainers, is a humorous peek inside a barbershop, a cocoon of political incorrectness where men can be men and say what they really think.
The controversy was sparked by one brief scene in which a character speaks disparagingly of some of our nation's black icons -- Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson -- prompting a demand for an apology from the reverends Al Sharpton and Jackson, as well as the King family. Certain historical figures should never be the punch lines in jokes, according to Jackson.
"You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke -- it's sacred territory," said Jackson. "While we support these actors, we still must have some line of dignity. That is non-negotiable."
As is increasingly the case, Jackson is off base. While I don't know any Golda Meir jokes, I do know that Meir was a hoot. Rather than take offense at a one-liner hurled her way, she'd most likely hurl one back. It was Meir, after all, who said to Moshe Dayan: "Don't be so humble, you're not that great."
She is also credited with this: "Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!" Say what you will about Meir, but humorless, she was not. Piously reverent, she was not.
In Barbershop, the controversial comments come from a single character, Eddie, (played by Cedric the Entertainer), who is, we apparently need reminding, a fictional character in a movie, which is pretend. It is art. Beyond that, the movie is a comedy, the purpose of which is to reveal our human flaws.
Is it wrong to poke fun at people who also happen to have some historical significance to our country? Is it wrong to de-mythologize our heroes? Comedy's history is all about challenging the gods.
In fact, Eddie is the archetypal "Trickster," whose dramatic purpose is to challenge societal taboos. Eddie's comment on Rosa Parks is funny specifically because it is taboo: "Rosa Parks ain't do nothin' but sit . . . down," he says.
Eddie also says some unflattering things about King and uses profanity to comment on Jackson. Why is this funny to some? Because humanizing mythologized icons provides relief to people all too aware of their own humanness. Why isn't it funny to others? Because some people have bought their own myths and take themselves far too seriously.
Mary Mitchell, an African-American columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, got it right when she wrote: "The beauty of Barbershop is it peels back the curtain and lets the world eavesdrop on the conversation that black folks can have when white people aren't around. . . . What remained was the good feeling you have when you know that despite the struggles black folks have gone through, we can still laugh at ourselves and each other."
The other barbershop characters, by the way, call down Eddie the Trickster, otherwise understood to be Eddie the Fool. So that while audience members are invited to laugh at the Trickster's frankly ignorant barbs, they are also reminded that King really was a hero who was martyred to the cause of civil rights.
And that Rosa Parks, in fact, did much more than sit down. She refused to stand up and surrender her seat at the front of the bus to a white man, as was required by law at the time. In Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, Parks' defiance was an act of sheer unadulterated courage. Brava, Rosa Parks.
And bravo the creators and actors of Barbershop, which invites whites to visit the inner sanctum of black men whose humor suggests that the days of the angry reverends are numbered, and that a new generation of racial optimism has been sprung.
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