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A Subversive Clown Uses Lies to Get at the Truth


The new hit film "Barbershop" has upset a lot of people, in particular one scene in which a highly opinionated and generally misinformed barber named Eddie (played by comedian Cedric the Entertainer) shocks everyone in the barbershop with his demeaning commentaries on revered African American leaders, among them Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

The immediate, outraged and varied responses Eddie provokes in the movie's fictional Chicago barbershop echo the immediate, varied and outraged responses that his remarks have provoked on the national stage.

Moreover, I will wager, the offending scene is today being echoed in conversations in barbershops (and other communal venues) around the country--each of them no doubt addressing in earnest detail the truth or falsity of those statements spoken in ignorance or jest by Eddie. This is what a film is supposed to do: imitate life through an artful weave of falsity.

Ironically, if "Barbershop" was a worse film, there might not be this debate. In a lesser film, Eddie would have been duly vanquished in a cutting contest with a trash talker with more formidable skills than his; or if the film was forgettable, its excesses would dribble into obscurity below our cultural radar.

But that's not the case with "Barbershop" or with the curiously subversive Eddie. His voice is the most strident and shocking in the film--and in some ways, the truest. As my friend Rose used to tell me, "Even the devil has to tell the truth sometimes."

Eddie is a bug-eyed, elderly gentleman with big colorful hair, big clothes, big features and a big smart mouth--in other words, he's a clown. Eddie's blunders and offenses against truth and decorum, too, are huge and clownish. Students of African American history, and this includes the film's sharpest critics, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, and lots of baby boomers like me, have seen this character before. I myself have even been him from time to time.

In African American lore, this character is known as the trickster--a Brer Rabbit, an inveterate liar and a self-referential fool. His lies and foolishness are the seats of his wisdom and the engines of his mischief.

The clientele at a place like Calvin's Barbershop, the mythical place where the drama unfolds, would know him as a trash talker and a liar. The things that come out of his mouth are meant to stir things up and foment debate. He is a fool, and a comic foil, and therefore everything he says and does is a lie or partakes of a lie.

When Eddie enters the film, he is pretending to be someone he is not: He cons a couple of gullible customers into fearing that he is a robber and a thug. At the last moment, he throws off his disguise, and everyone enjoys a laugh at the fooled customers' expense.

Each of Eddie's actions and speeches, composed of half-truths, malapropisms, folk wisdom and outright lies, provokes some form of spirited engagement from someone in the shop.

They are supposed to do the same for us as well. They are a species of verbal graffiti scrawled along the base of Mrs. Parks' inviolate monument.

Before I ever heard of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, or any of the living and martyred saints of the civil rights movement, my grandmother was the apex of morality and power in my world. She took me by the hand and down the steep slopes of Woods Street in Nashville where we lived and into the Negro barbershop on 8th Avenue to get a cut.

But if we were approached by a white person of any age or gender, we were expected to step into the street so that the white person could pass on the pavement. My grandmother, a strong, proud woman, quietly obliged this racist system, as did millions of other African American Southerners.

When we got on a bus, she could not just sit down, as Eddie suggests was so easy for Mrs. Parks to do. My grandfather had been murdered by whites for exactly such a slight. And so when Mrs. Parks sat down, it was a seismic shift, which my grandmother and I and all my family and neighbors benefited from that moment forward.

This sort of protest used to be necessary. When our family went to the movies in Nashville in the early '50s, our parents would dress us as if we were going to a formal event, my sisters in their Sunday dresses, and me in my blazer, bow tie and pint-size fedora. Before the activism of everyday local people like my folks or epic regional figures like Mrs. Parks, none us ever dared enter the theaters by the front doors.

We understood this fact and never crossed the invisible Jim Crow barriers that proscribed our every step.

Our survival required that we never let the white folks know what we were thinking and plotting behind our smiling masks. We would join the streams of Negroes--doctors, workers, students--circling around the theater to its foul back alley, where we mounted a spindly flight of stairs leading to the second-floor balcony where the Negro movie section awaited.

Nothing can destroy the dignity of those folks to me, not the monstrous excesses of white folks, and certainly not a movie.

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