Things are tougher today on Chicago's south side than 14 years ago when we first walked into Calvin Palmer's barbershop. Gangs and guns are poisoning youth, and peace must be increased. It's an unusual setting for shade-throwing comedy and booty gags.
Yet Barbershop: The Next Cut largely pulls it off, with a commendable wealth of conscience within its coarse exterior. In a way, director Malcolm D. Lee shaped a breezier version of his cousin Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, with both films addressing the Windy City's violent erosion that can only be tempered by unity.
At the center of this storm is Calvin's barbershop, a former man cave now shared with a women's salon, doubling the number of dishable topics and sexual tension. A scattershot screenplay by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver is loaded with spot-on snaps ("You'd dropkick Lupita (Nyong'o) to get to Kim Kardashian") and provocations ("Obama used to be one of us").
None of this sounds like lip service but genuine issues on a black community's collective mind. At times the comedy abruptly undercuts serious points being made, and certainly the script dumps too many topics on the table. But if #OscarsSoWhite taught us anything, it's that chances for black thinking on screen don't come along often enough.
Calvin is again played by Ice Cube, whose life leading to this project — partly defined by the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton — lends invaluable credibility to this movie's many messages, about violence, respecting women, parenting and accountability. Cube is believably earnest, playing straight man to a room full of fools and posers, calling out anyone going too far.
The one mattering most is Calvin's teenage son, Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.), who's slipping into gang culture. Calvin's concern leads to negotiating a 48-hour truce between neighborhood gangs, during which time his staff will offer free hair styling. Calvin may also move his shop to Chicago's safer north side, against everyone else's wishes.
Whatever issue arises, there's someone ready to sound off. Usually that's old-school Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), whose wisecracking impatience is the script's best friend. A hustler named One-Stop (J.B. Smoove) is a standout on the men's side of the shop, while Nicky Minaj and Margot Bingham represent an arc of black womanhood, from sexual fantasy to affirming reality.
My recent review of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 noted that a movie's heart can be in the right place but that doesn't mean I want to be there. Barbershop: The Next Cut's heart is in the right place, and I enjoyed nearly every unkempt minute of it. Maybe it has a point, and what that needs now really is a Luther Vandross song and a haircut.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.