Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Beneath the furor over the film's wisecrack about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. lies a real crisis in black leadership.
“Barbershop” is one funny movie. But even more laughable are the outrageous responses to the film by two prominent black leaders.
Talk about going over the top. The Rev. Al Sharpton demanded an apology for, and Jesse Jackson was piqued over, two minutes of irreverent humor in the film. They actually took seriously the deliberately silly and inane crack by Cedric the Entertainer that the towering contributions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to the civil rights struggle had no value.
Certainly none of the characters in “Barbershop” believed it. They immediately jumped all over him.
In fact, it’s due in large part to the magnificent contributions of Parks, King and other legendary civil rights heroes that entertainers such as Cedric the Entertainer and the writers, director and producers of “Barbershop” — all of whom are black — could even get a major Hollywood studio to bankroll their film. The civil rights struggle also opened doors to blacks in education, business and other professions. The crumbling of those barriers has given blacks the awesome economic muscle to help make “Barbershop” a smash box office success.
But Cedric’s enormously off-base wisecrack about black leaders is nevertheless complex. Underneath it flows a current of disenchantment and resentment that many blacks feel toward those who designate themselves — or more likely are designated by whites — as “black leaders.”
Many of these leaders are middle-class businesspeople and professionals. Their agendas and top-down style of leadership are remote, distant, and often wildly out of step with the needs of poor and working-class blacks. They often approach tough public policy issues — such as the astronomical black imprisonment rates, the dreary plight of poor black women, black homelessness, black-on-black crime and violence, the drug crisis, gang warfare, and school vouchers — with a strange blend of caution, uncertainty and wariness. They keep counsel only with those black ministers, politicians, professionals and business leaders whom they consider respectable and legitimate and who will blindly march in lockstep with their program.
Worst of all, they horribly disfigure black leadership by turning it into a corporate-style competitive business in which success is measured by piling up political favors and corporate dollars. The sad thing is that it wasn’t always this way. For decades, mainstream black organizations such as the NAACP relied on the nickels and dimes of poor and working-class blacks for their support. This gave them complete independence and a solid constituency to mount powerful campaigns for jobs, better housing and higher-quality schools, and against police violence and lynching.
The profound shift in the method and style of black leadership began in the 1970s. After the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the collapse of the traditional civil rights organizations, and the destruction and co-optation of militant activist groups, mainstream black leaders, politicians and ministers did a sharp about-face. They quickly redefined the black agenda as gaining admission into more country clubs, buying bigger and more expensive homes, taking more luxury vacations, starting more and better businesses, electing more Democrats, and grabbing more spots in corporations, universities and the professions.
The biggest gripe many blacks have about some black leaders is that they give to themselves the sole right to speak exclusively on behalf of all blacks. That is much evident in Sharpton’s demand that MGM excise Cedric’s politically incorrect quip from a film that has already been seen by thousands — as if the demand to slice is made on behalf of all blacks.
Black leaders get away with this arrogant presumption because many whites regard blacks as so far outside the political and social pale that they see them as monolithic. Whites are profoundly conditioned to believe that all blacks think, act and sway to the same racial beat. They freely use the words and deeds of the chosen black leader as the standard for African American behavior.
Then, when the beleaguered chosen one makes a real or contrived misstep, he or she becomes the whipping boy for many whites. Blacks are then blamed for being rash, foolhardy, irresponsible and prone to shuffle the race cards on every social ill that befalls them.
“Barbershop” is more than a comedic, slice-of-black-life film. It spotlights the historic role that barbershops in black and probably other ethnic neighborhoods have traditionally played in allowing working people to vent, swap gossip and information, keep abreast of social and political issues, and express their own special brand of ethnic in-group humor. There is no need to cut out or apologize for that.
More Related Stories
- Here come the tornado truthers. Already
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Moore officials: Funds for "safe rooms" were held up by red tape
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Rescue crews race to find tornado survivors
- Looting in Oklahoma?
- Hundreds of low-wage federally contracted workers strike in D.C.
- Okla. mother's tearful reunion with her 8-year-old son
- New campaign compares gun control to anti-LGBT discrimination
- Study: Salt Lake City is gay parenting capital of the U.S.
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Watch: Family emerges from storm shelter after tornado
- Must-see morning clip: Barackalypse Now
- Okla. tornado survivor reunited with dog trapped in rubble live on camera
- Is Pope Francis an exorcist?
- Oklahoma death count confirmed at 24, 9 children
- Frantic parents search for children in tornado's wake
- Crews dig through rubble after deadly tornado
- 51 killed in massive Oklahoma tornado
- Don't cry climate-change wolf
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a contributor to Pacific News Service and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black."