They're two current films by and about African-Americans, and they offer widely divergent views of black life in the United States. While the controversial smash hit Barbershop starts off trading on very familiar tropes, it ultimately tries to break through a cultural wall by taking "straight talk" traditionally reserved for black ears only to the general public. A significantly less successful independent film, Pandora's Box, still succeeds at least in uncompromisingly portraying a robust African-American community immediately recognizable to citizens in the real world--but still rarely seen in Hollywood.
On most qualitative yardsticks, Pandora's Box is, admittedly, a poor film. Shot on 35 millimeter stock, with attractive and mostly solid actors, the film certainly looks good. But in the end it can't transcend slack editing and a very weak script.
The film's heroine is Mia DuBois, a 30-something clinical psychologist unhappily married to a man who cares more for day trading than for night playing. In a dogged performance by a veteran trouper, Monica Calhoun plays Mia as a sex-starved and repressed wallflower who nervously fingers her blouse when impure thoughts intrude. In one of the film's too-few good lines, Dr. DuBois' primary patient tells her, "For a shrink, you're easy to read."
Though the slipshod plot includes a pair of cops and an ongoing murder investigation, the film's real agenda involves the sexual awakening of Mia from a life of being "good"--and miserable. An alluring and mysterious patient urges her to go to a sex club from which the film derives its title, intimating that she can confront her most sinister and depraved desires there. Mia meets a man (Michael Jai White) there who becomes her lover and partner in danger through the rest of this, frankly, bad film.
The film does have a few moments and scenes that click (most notably, a dizzyingly cut chase scene at the end that recalls Jean-Pierre Melville and Wong Kar-Wai), and by the end, a Double Indemnity-style plot reveals itself. Despite such rare bursts of felicity, Pandora's Box can't be recommended on its own merits.
Still, as a cultural artifact, it's a fascinating film. Most strikingly, this film takes place in the exact same bourgeois fantasy world that most Hollywood films occupy, with one telling exception: All of the main characters are black. Pandora's Box is filled with black characters driving luxury cars, talking on cell phones, hunched over laptops, jogging in parks and swimming at the health club. African Americans do all these things in real life, of course, but rarely does Hollywood seem to think so.
Mainstream films either tend to exoticize or neutralize their black characters. On one hand, Chris Tucker types do neo-minstrel shtick. On the other, legions of good-hearted, first-to-die sidekicks offer sage counsel to suffering white leads. In Pandora's Box, the fact of blackness is a given, a premise that needs no explanation. But exploring the issues of blackness isn't the point. The story is, and unfortunately, it's weak.
Pandora's Box will likely provide a fascinating, through-the-looking-glass experience for white audiences accustomed to a limited range of black images. African-American audiences on the other hand may simply get bored.
Like Pandora's Box, Barbershop is set in a largely hermetic African-American world. In contrast, however, Barbershop begins by trading on well-worn archetypes of black urban life made familiar as far back as the 1970s on TV shows like Good Times, Sanford and Son and What's Happening.
Ice Cube plays Calvin, the reluctant proprietor of a Chicago barbershop in financial crisis. The film takes place over the course of a single day, which begins with Calvin making a secret decision to sell the shop to a neighborhood loan shark. As the day progresses, we meet the wide range of characters who depend on the barbershop for their livelihoods, for their grooming, and for the community it offers. Though broadly-drawn, a strong and appealing cast brings them effortlessly to life.
But where the fact of race is virtually non-existent in Pandora's Box, Barbershop is almost about nothing else. The characters are constantly challenging one another to prove their racial credibility. For example, a West African barber is played as a sissy, until his big moment comes when he knocks out a romantic rival with a single punch. The sole white character is a sweatsuit-wearing, ebonics-spouting poseur, who's subjected to ridicule for most of the film, until he, too, finally earns his right to be black.
Race is also at the forefront of the film's most notorious scene. In it, an aging wiseguy barber wonderfully played by Cedric the Entertainer, leads an impromptu grilling of certain idols and shibboleths in the black community. In his view, O.J.'s guilty, Rodney King was an out-of-control junkie who deserved to get clobbered, and Martin Luther King was a "'ho." The civil rights establishment, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, has, not surprisingly, taken umbrage. Both have raised the specter of a boycott, and have demanded that the offending scene be deleted from video and DVD releases.
It's amusing to see these two behave like clueless parents wringing their hands over American Pie, Faces of Death or Marilyn Manson, fearful for the moral well-being of the youngsters. There's no reason to believe that young black audiences watching the film will suddenly cease to admire Rosa Parks (another target in the scene) because of this movie. Just as many Catholic school kids grow weary of bowing their heads at every mention of the deity, this scene in Barbershop provides a refreshing blast of irreverence for black youngsters.
Most commentators have noted Cedric's line, "Where else can we talk straight, except in a barbershop." But they've failed to notice something else. The characters in Barbershop aren't talking straight in a barbershop. They're talking straight in a movie theater.
In short, the irreverent frankness of Barbershop isn't being kept within the family any longer. It's being broadcast to everyone who sees the film. Still, while openness, we're told, is healthy, the image of white moviegoers guffawing at Cedric's roasting of Rodney King remains an unsettling one. The point of that outrage wasn't the content of King's character, but the simple fact of a black man's brutalization at the hands of white policemen.
As a warm-hearted celebration of community, Barbershop deserves to be the hit that it's become. Still, we need more films in which tried-and-true black cultural shtick is not the sole selling point. John Q, a hit from earlier this year, depicted an ordinary working class family that just happened to be black--though the film was written and directed by whites. Pandora's Box, on the other hand, is a respectable effort to leave behind such well-worn material. Though it isn't very good on many levels, hopefully it will help open the door to black filmmaking that can shake off the clichés of racial expectations.