‘Barbershop: The Next Cut’
Director:
Malcolm D. Lee
Stars: Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Ideally there would be a new “Barbershop” every decade. That’s not because they’re great movies. They’re not. But they are great (and very quotable) at taking the temperature of black America, especially when there’s been a major cultural shift. The best parts of the films — including the first two from the aughts, the off-shoot “Beauty Shop” and the short-lived TV show — play like community theater, with characters who don’t agree with each other arguing confidently, sometimes stubbornly over issues ripped from the headlines. Has the Obama era been a boon or a bust for most black Americans? Is gun ownership a liberty or a liability? How do you meaningfully stop inner city gang violence? Is “fleek” really a word?

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There’s no clean answer for any of this, no single agenda the movie is pushing. It’s just about characters engaged in a dialogue that forever straddles the line between serious and joking. In “The New Cut,” the perhaps now absurdly packed house at Calvin’s Barbershop in South Side Chicago — run by Ice Cube’s nice guy/master of ceremonies Calvin — name-drop Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the main thrust to an otherwise episodic, chatter-driven entry revolves around the gang epidemic currently plaguing the town onscreen and off. 

This is a serious, righteously angry film. But it’s also a film with constant jokes, that finds gallows humor in shootings and lynchings, and which even seems to pull a joke diss of #BlackLivesMatter. The last one comes from Eddie, Cedric the Entertainer’s grizzled and gleefully inflammatory old timer, who spent the first movie making fun of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. He’s there to voice the most unpopular opinions — not because the film agrees with him but because it wants to always destabilize things, and to show the diversity of black life, which is so often reduced in popular culture to a single shade.

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Instead, “The Next Cut” loves cramming in different voices, almost to the degree and passion with which Spike Lee loves cramming in different voices. It was even directed by Spike’s cousin, Malcolm D. Lee (“The Best Man,” “Undercover Brother”). It’s his warmer, gentler version of “Chi-Raq,” although it’s just as incensed about gun violence ravaging Chicago. As it goes on “The Next Cut” threatens to become too overwhelmed by seriousness. The barbershop banter scenes get cut down, replaced by Calvin worrying about his 14-year-old son as he’s seduced by a neighborhood gang. There’s also a stock subplot about whether fellow barber (Common) is cheating on his wife (Eve) with a fellow hairdresser (Nicki Minaj).

But even that thread leads to a welcome, spirited and even progressive debate about how women like Minaj’s character are always treated like villainous sucubi. It wants to use fiery arguments, peppered with ad-libbed jokes about George Jefferson and syphilis, to strive for a utopia in which the world’s problems are solved through conversation. Even its sometimes painfully didactic bits about gang violence are ultimately on the side of the angels. It paints a real tragedy in broad, populist strokes, but even that can be a kind of political act. It sneaks real vitriol about an out-of-control problem into the mainstream in a movie about comedians cracking at length about how Obama probably has tail on the side.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge