By almost any measure, the movie “Barbershop” is a Cinderella success story for Hollywood’s black creative community. Written, produced and directed by African Americans and featuring a cast of popular black entertainers, it’s also been the No. 1 movie in America for two weekends running.
Yet instead of being a cause for celebration, “Barbershop” has touched off a furor among some of the nation’s black leaders over the movie’s less-than-reverent references to civil rights figures Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
While Hollywood is often accused of political incorrectness and racial insensitivity, the commercial and critical success of this film, due in large part to black moviegoers, makes this lighthearted comedy an unusual target for the uproar in black media outlets and radio stations.
Although the film is shaping up as one of the most successful movies with a strong African American theme, leaders such as Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and members of Parks’ and King’s families are incensed over one scene that pokes fun at Parks, King and Jackson. They have called for a public apology from the filmmakers and demanded that MGM remove the scene from its eventual home video release. Sharpton has gone so far as to threaten a boycott of the film if MGM does not reply to their requests by Friday.
MGM Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Chris McGurk said he was blindsided by the criticism, considering the film has a positive message and has been embraced by African American audiences. He said the studio would not issue an apology and would not censor the movie.
“This movie is about freedom of speech in the barbershop whether it’s right or wrong or indifferent,” McGurk said. “It’s one fictional character in the movie who is saying that and the 20 other people in the barbershop disagree and shout him down.”
The film’s producers, George Tillman Jr. and Bob Teitel, and director Tim Story declined interview requests. Tillman, Teitel, Story and writer Don Scott, however, did send an apologetic letter to Sharpton on Monday saying they “in no way meant to belittle any of the contributions made by these fine individuals and your organization to our community and society as a whole.” In the letter, they say they will send letters to Parks, Jackson and the King family.
Jackson, who has not seen the movie but read a version of the script, contended there are certain historical figures who should never be disrespected.
“You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke--it’s sacred territory,” said Jackson in a telephone interview. “While we support these actors, we still must have some line of dignity. That is nonnegotiable.”
Jackson, who has been outspoken about the low numbers of blacks represented in movies and TV, infuriated many in Hollywood with his protest outside the 1995 Oscars. Many African American filmmakers at the time said protests were not the way to get Hollywood to make more movies about and starring blacks. Even ceremony host Whoopi Goldberg made a point of criticizing Jackson.
“Barbershop,” which stars Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer, has grossed about $40 million, and has hit a chord among all age groups. It has begun to cross over to a broader audience, although as of last weekend 60% of the audience was still African American.
Some in the black creative community expressed outrage at the campaign against the film.
“Why are we knocking our own success?” said producer Walter Latham, the creator behind the successful “The Original Kings of Comedy” tour and film that featured Cedric the Entertainer and other top black comedians.
“I cannot believe that finally there is this success at the box office, there is forward momentum, and the negativity is coming from the same people who are always saying we need more blacks in TV, more blacks in the movies. There’s got to be a better way to criticize people.”
Latham added that the controversy will hurt other black filmmakers because studios will be reluctant to get involved with urban material. “Because of this success, I and other producers could have set up movies like this. This movie has made a huge impact. But now we’ve taken a step backward,” Latham said.
Jackson, Latham said, could have approached the makers of “Barbershop” privately instead of making his concerns public.
Another defender of the movie, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary A. Mitchell, wrote, “The beauty of ‘Barbershop’ is that it peels back the curtain and lets the world eavesdrop on the conversation that black folks can have when white people aren’t around. That’s the real barbershop--and beauty shop for that matter.”
Mitchell, who is African American, went on to say, “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.”
Lately there have been several films starring African Americans that have performed well commercially, including “Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat,” “Friday” and its sequel, and “The Original Kings of Comedy.”
The brouhaha over “Barbershop” involves one two-minute scene played by Cedric the Entertainer. In jabs at Parks, King and Jackson, Cedric’s character, Eddie, declares, “Rosa Parks ain’t do nothin’ but sit ... down.” Despite protests from others in the barbershop, he goes on to describe King in less than flattering terms, and when one person brings up Jackson, he retorts with profanity. But these remarks are part of a larger, biting monologue where Cedric’s character takes swipes at numerous other controversial figures in the black community, including Rodney King and O.J. Simpson.
On Monday, Sharpton fired off a letter to MGM President Michael Nathanson, requesting a meeting and asking for a public apology from the filmmakers. As of late Tuesday, Sharpton said he had not heard from the studio.
“We want to hear a response and we will see if [a boycott] becomes necessary,” he said. “If they don’t respond, then we must question people’s intentions.”
Elaine Steele, a longtime friends of Parks and co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute in Detroit, said Parks was never consulted about the salty dialogue.
Steele, who sent a letter Tuesday to MGM Chief Executive Officer Alex Yemenidjian, said she had gotten a lot of calls from people who were very upset.
“They [the movie producers] are talking about coming out with an apology,” she said, noting that she had not seen the film. “I’m waiting for one. It’s horrible.”
Among audiences, reaction seemed mixed.
Kalister Green-Byrd, 68, a retired educator who lives in Haverhill, Mass., said she was outraged by the scene.
“I was absolutely livid,” said Green-Byrd. “I grew up in Alabama, and I was devastated that they would defame Rosa Parks and those who were so instrumental in the civil rights movement. I didn’t like the whole movie. It was a poor portrayal of black people. I just didn’t see the humor in it.”
Andre Brooks, 19, a film student at Cal State Los Angeles, also said he found the scene offensive. He saw the film in August at the National Assn. of Black Journalists convention in Milwaukee.
“I could see what they were trying to do with the comedy, but I feel they went a bit too far,” Brooks said. “I love the concept, I love Cedric, but I didn’t think those jokes were appropriate.”
But outside the Whittier Village Cinemas, Jonathan Ornelas, 28, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, said, “I didn’t see it as demeaning at all. It’s just the element they are in. They are in a barbershop.”
John Romero, 52, of Pico Rivera agreed. “Cedric was capping on everybody--this is part of the lingo, part of life in the barbershop,” he said. “I grew up in Echo Park. I didn’t grow up in the black community, but I didn’t think it was degrading.”
Times staff writer John L. Mitchell contributed to this report.