Uncle Tom’s Barbershop?

The movie Barbershop is a nightmare for people like the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Black leaders have taunted the creators of Barbershop for remarks that disparage the reputation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Rosa Parks by “Eddie,” the character played by Cedric the Entertainer . The sad thing is that while the character of Eddie is somewhat of a social misfit, he has more class and dignity than many of those who are shouting him down. This could have been the creator’s intent all along.

Eddie is the symbol of dignity in this movie (believe it or not). While he doesn’t speak clearly, has an “old-school afro,” and seems to be the “teller of tall tales,” Eddie also challenges the young people that surround him to strive for perfection and class. He holds an impromptu shaving class for the younger barbers, he scolds the neighborhood pimp for his actions, and most of all, he calls for the elite to empower the lower classes, as Calvin Sr., the original barbershop owner did for him years ago.

The controversy surrounds Eddie’s complaint that Rosa Parks gets credit for firing the first round in the civil rights movement, when he claims that all she did was “sit her black ass down because she was tired.” He blames her connection with the black elite for giving rise to her popularity. I’m sure that Ms. Parks wasn’t the first person that refused to sit in the back of the bus. How many more people were kicked off the bus for this, or possibly beaten up for their actions? Perhaps this Eddie knows one of these people, as he seems to allude to. He also speaks of both King’s and Jackson’s marital infidelities (he calls King a “ho”). He calls for a new kind of black leadership, someone, who as Eddie says, “ain’t exempt” from this higher standard.

Eddie personifies dignity for all people who come from a lower economic status. Eddie glorifies “Calvin Sr.,” the original owner of the barbershop. While the present day owner (Calvin Jr., played by Ice Cube) doesn’t seem to appreciate the shop as the symbol of dignity Eddie sees it as, the Barbershop remains a community bully-pulpit blind to class. The fact that Calvin Sr. gave Eddie a job in the barbershop raises his standing in the community from village idiot to someone who now has a voice, becomes informed, and who can create grassroots change for those in the neighborhood (he starts a shoe fund for a basketball star who can’t afford sneakers). It is real power for Eddie in an arena of social change. He creates “healthy conversation” in a community that is starving for a voice.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson speaks about scholars paying particular attention to the unheralded figures in the civil rights cause. “The voices of ordinary people do not ring in the halls of our organizations as frequently as they should,” he writes. As the son of a custodial worker, I can tell you that the issue of class cuts even across racial lines. The lower ranks of the working class are often stepped on and thrown aside in society. They are “replaceable parts” of an ever grinding economic system where the rich only seem to get richer.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have called for the removal of several lines of the movie, and thus far MGM has refused. Such an act would seem to convict those who are far too often among the uncounted and raise the status of elites instead. The injustice here is not one of color, nor of history’s representation, but of class. Perhaps this is why Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Jackson, in grand elitist style, hope they can encourage a new kind of “Uncle Tom” by getting the Eddie’s to “just shut up and cut the hair.”