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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 do.

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 Capra.

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 needed.

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 of respect!)

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 black audience.

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 this book.

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 dictate strategy.

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 board.

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 education.

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.


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