Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 30, 2002
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Barbershop, Supreme Command, and the School Board
The movie Barbershop has been garnering a lot of press attention lately because it has
been attacked by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for "attacking" such icons of the civil rights
movement as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rodney King.
The sad thing is that only really stupid people -- or people who profit personally from
getting people angry -- could possibly misinterpret the movie as grossly as Sharpton and Jackson
You'd never know it from either the promos or the controversy, but this film is one of the
most entertaining, decent, charming, truthful, funny, human movies since the days of Frank
Sparkplugged by producer/star Ice Cube, who plays the owner of the titular Barbershop,
it's the story of a community -- a neighborhood whose heartbeat is felt in this gathering place.
Everybody's dreaming of improving themselves and getting out of the neighborhood; only
gradually, as the movie goes on, do they begin to realize that they are already home, and instead
of getting out, they're building good lives where they are.
The ensemble cast is extraordinarily good -- not a bad actor among them. As we left the
theater, my daughter commented that Barbershop is one of a new breed of black independent
films that tell wonderful stories of real people, instead of relying on either racial anger or racial
stereotypes. How often, she said, do these terrific black actors get a chance to show what they
can really do?
Ice Cube, in the part of Calvin Palmer, is a strong anchor to this incredible cast of
characters. There's not a bad performance in the bunch -- but I do have to single out Michael
Ealy, who has previously played mostly small parts. In this film, he plays Ricky Nash, a two-time loser who'll go to jail for life if he is arrested again. Ealy has an extraordinary screen
presence, at once dangerous and warm -- a combination I've never seen before, frankly, so I
can't compare him to anybody else. If he doesn't become a major star, there's no justice.
Whether you're black or white, rich or poor, this movie is so filled with humor and love
that you would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to enjoy it from beginning to end.
Which is why I'm puzzled about why Sharpton and Jackson would attack the movie
instead of celebrating it as a unifying film during a time when American unity is desperately
The whole controversy centers around a single character, Eddie, a curmudgeonly old
barber played by Cedric the Entertainer. (Please, oh please, C. the E., change to a name! It's so
embarrassing to have to refer to you by such a phony title when you're so talented and deserving
At one point, just to stir things up, Eddie goes on a diatribe about how all Rosa Parks did
was sit down. Lots of other people had sat down before her, he says, but because she was
secretary of the "N-double-A-C-C-P" she got a lot of publicity. Then he goes on a rant about
other precious truths that black people ought to admit among themselves even if they don't admit
it to white people. His list includes: O.J. did it. Rodney King deserved some kind of beating.
Martin Luther King, Jr., slept around.
Now, that might very well be offensive to some -- especially because this movie isn't
just within the black community, as witness the fact that this white guy is reviewing it.
But in the context of the film, the scene is not offensive to anyone who isn't eager to be
offended. Why? First, because it's clearly intended to be funny -- and it is.
Second, because everyone else in the scene immediately jumps all over Eddie, making it
clear that they believe he's dead wrong.
Third, because the writers make Eddie's rant so ridiculous -- including slipping that extra
C into NAACP -- that it's clear that they don't believe the things they have Eddie say. The point
they're making is that in this Barbershop, absolute tolerance prevails: Anybody can say anything
and still remain a member of the community.
But Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don't thrive in communities where anybody can say
anything and still prevail. Their kind of "leadership" thrives only in hostile settings where they
can get people stirred up and angry by twisting and spinning things that have perfectly innocent
explanations in order to get people outraged.
Of course, anybody who's actually seen Barbershop knows the deepest reason why Jesse
Jackson is so angry. And I won't tell you why, you have to see it to know.
Let's get something straight here. This is not a minstrel show, a black film designed to
please white audiences. Nor is it an "inside" movie, designed to be comprehended only by a
This is a human movie that uses a black Chicago neighborhood to tell a powerful, truthful
story that any open-hearted human being can enjoy.
The best thing about the book Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership
in Wartime is that the author, Eliot A. Cohen, is a member of the Defense Policy Board, giving
advice to the Secretary of Defense.
Personally, I think no one should be allowed to run for President without having first read
Too often, we believe the myth that the job of the civilian government in wartime is to
provide the funding and the overall objective for the military, and then stand back and let the
soldiers do their job.
Cohen's point is the opposite -- that democracies thrive best when brave and brilliant
civilian leaders work closely with the military and never allow the generals and admirals to
He uses four men as detailed examples: Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston
Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion. Each of them faced formidable enemies and saved their
nations from defeat -- in large part because not for a moment did they fail in their duty as
commanders-in-chief, despite their lack of training in military matters.
There are important lessons here, and as we engage in a difficult war, I wish our President
would read this book and take some of the lessons to heart.
But there's a local lesson here, too -- about Pam Allen of the Guilford County school
Allen is, by all accounts, quite an extraordinary woman. As PTA president at
Mendenhall, she was marvelous in her support of the school administration. She was and is an
untiring public servant, and I'm sure she is baffled now by the hostility that she now faces from
many in the community.
What did she do wrong?
It's sadly simple.
She just couldn't get out of the PTA mindset. The PTA president is a booster, making no
decisions about school policy but doing her best to help the principal accomplish his goals.
But the school board has a radically different job. They are the bosses of all the
administrators, staff, and faculty of all the schools in the county.
They not only set policy, but, like the great men depicted in Supreme Command, they
must also make sure that the administrators are making good decisions and call them to account
if they are not.
There is no room for humility in the attitude of the school board toward the
administration. Bureaucracies are always infested with kingdom-builders, careerists, and
complete incompetents who have learned how to fake it. If the school board doesn't actively
seek out, identify, and either control or fire those who fit these categories, the school system
quickly and inevitably loses its way.
When budgets come to the school board, they must be rigorously examined. School
board members must go into the trenches and see what the experience of the teachers and
students is like.
They must keep the administrators from interfering -- as they always do -- with actual
They must keep the schools from going after wacko educational fads and hold to methods
that make sense and actually work.
Instead of exerting that kind of leadership, Allen unfortunately bowed to the "wisdom" of
the "experts," not realizing that there are no experts on education, only believers in various
dogmas, and that people who rise to the top of a school administration are not experts on
education, they are experts on rising within bureaucracies.
It's unfortunate that Allen is the most prominent board member up for reelection at the
time when the public is finally getting fed up. She is hardly the only offender, but replacing her
with someone who understands the real nature of the job will shift the voting majority, and so she
has to go if there is to be any hope of getting this administration under civilian control.
And that is why, despite Allen's great talents and willing heart, she is probably going to
be tossed off the board this fall in favor of someone who understands that in a democracy,
civilians must control the experts and professionals so that they serve the people as a whole
instead of their own closed community.
Book of the week: Robert Parker's newest, Shrink Rap, a Sunny Randall novel. Ain't
nobody doing this better, and Randall is a strong character every bit as engaging as Spenser. In
this one, Randall takes on the job of bodyguard for a romance novelist who is being stalked by an
ex-husband. Having just finished a book-signing tour myself, some of this stuff sounded way too
familiar -- though I open the books myself, thanks, and nobody has ever opened their veins and
smeared blood across the store window to make me faint during the signing.