‘Barbershop' tackled economic anxiety a decade before it became clichéd

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

"Barbershop"
Released Sept. 13, 2002
Directed by Tim Story

A business owner and entrepreneur scared about the future. An immigrant worried about fitting in. An older man complaining about the younger generation's lack of knowledge. An ongoing debate between an intellectual and a non-college-educated white man.

In the aftermath of the 2016 United States presidential election, the narrative around the outcome was about "economic anxiety," and more specifically, the feelings of rural or non-college-educated white people. While the loss of manufacturing and other opportunities devastated many communities, these issues were given more weight in the national conversation than the plight of inner-city neighborhoods which have suffered for a long time too, many of which also deal with the anxieties noted above.

When "Barbershop" debuted in 2002, it also didn't receive the attention or success that its peers did that year. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was far and away the most successful comedy of the year, followed by "Austin Powers in Goldmember," "Men in Black II," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Maid in Manhattan" and "Two Weeks Notice," but one would be hard-pressed to say any of these films are better than "Barbershop," which quietly made more than six times its production budget. Not that financial success is an indicator of quality in Hollywood, but the industry has a history of underestimating or outright dismissing mainstream films created by and starring black people.

Despite the obstacles of the system, "Barbershop" wears its heart on its sleeve and its ambition with pride. The bulk of the film takes place at the titular business owned by Calvin Parker (Ice Cube), who inherited the place from his father but is often dreaming about the other opportunities he can be pursing. The other employees of the shop include the veteran barber whose chair is usually empty (Cedric the Entertainer), an intellectual whose already looking past his current job and status (Sean Patrick Thomas), a woman on the verge of losing her relationship (Eve), a white male immersed in black culture (Troy Garity), and a recent parolee trying to stay on the up-and-up (Michael Ealy), all of whom service and converse with the various people who come in and out all day.

Facing financial burdens, Calvin considers an offer from a loan shark (Keith David) to sell the barbershop. You can sympathize as to why: running a good place in the inner city of Chicago seems like a tough road (especially in the winter), there's crime and even the customers may run out on you without paying for their haircut.

But mostly, it's easy to take a barbershop for granted. It doesn't seem like a path to riches (which is often the only bellwether of success for many Americans sadly). However, it is a place of community, where people can come together and talk about almost anything without the world ending. Based on a story by Mark Brown and written by Brown, Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd, "Barbershop" illustrates the communal aspect of the business well, a neutral zone inside a universe that is crazy. Were it not for the ongoing subplot of Anthony Anderson's character trying to break into a stolen ATM, "Barbershop" could probably exist on the stage, alongside other American plays that attempt to wrestle with our human need to connect and relate to each other despite our flaws.

The ensemble cast of characters here are archetypes, like the teens of "The Breakfast Club," and their humanity comes from their choices to face their challenges. An ongoing theme of this column quickly becomes apparent again as "Barbershop" gives us another opportunity to empathize with others who may not share our experiences. The initiative behind the film is to present a positive image of the black community instead of crime and slavery, a mission that seems as vital as ever as bad faith public leaders try to dehumanize any group who does not conform or resemble them.

When "Barbershop" debuted in 2002, it drew positive reviews and great ticket sales throughout September. The film had an extended life at theaters throughout fall and even lasting past the busy and crowded Christmas season. It's obvious that audiences loved the film, and "Barbershop" would go on to become its a franchise, releasing two sequels, a spinoff movie "Beauty Shop," and a Showtime television series that lasted one season.

I haven't seen any of the spinoff projects, but there's a lot to admire about the original "Barbershop." Through the struggles of the film characters, we can find ways to relate, regardless of our background. The people of "Barbershop" are all living paycheck-to-paycheck, and sometimes less, while facing external pressures like authorities, assimilation and the dishonesty of others, but they take pride in themselves, their places and their work. Maybe it's that self-identity that is the only thing they have left in this world that has any value, not unlike those who succumbed to "economic anxieties" of recent times.

Like its characters, that pride extends to the filmmakers of "Barbershop," which is elevated by its honest passion that this work means something, whether you are cutting hair in a neighborhood business or a small budget movie just looking for a chance to be seen.

The Weekend: Fall doesn't officially begin for another week or so, but the fall movie season starts to roll around this time historically. There's quite a mix of solid-to-good movies that debut, but also some films that have already generated acclaim and awards buzz that bow here. As a result, this is probably one of the most difficult and subjective choices that have been made in plotting out the Ultimate Movie Year.

Looking through the past openings, several movies may not have lit the box office on fire initially, but found their audiences on cable and rental markets. Mike Nichols adapted Carrie Fisher's memoir "Postcards from the Edge" with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in 1990. Tony Scott's "True Romance" in 1993 is an entertaining, if violent, crime film that is fondly remembered for its packed cast and screenplay by a young Quentin Tarantino. Michael Douglas and Sean Penn starred in one of David Fincher's overlooked films, "The Game," which premiered in 1997. Matt Damon and Edward Norton helped bring the underground poker scene to the mainstream in John Dahl's "Rounders" from 1998.

Some great films debuted at this time that are easy to recommend. Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" earned a Best Picture nomination after its premiere in 1994. Cameron Crowe fictionalized his past as a young rock critic in 2000's wonderful "Almost Famous." In 2008, the Coen Brothers crafted one of the best farces of their careers with the star-studded "Burn After Reading." The respective quality of these films would make a strong argument for their inclusion if most of these filmmakers were not already represented throughout the year.

The most painful omission would be 2003's "Lost in Translation," Sofia Coppola's sophomore effort with stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. With the diversity of filmmakers in Hollywood already a struggle, it's difficult to choose between a black male or a white female director, and Coppola is one of the most respected and accomplished creators in her field. Ultimately, "Barbershop" became the focus for bringing its socio-economic perspective to the overall list.

Next Week: "Goodfellas"