The upside of offending: free speech and ‘healthy conversations’

Sunday, October 6, 2002

The new movie “Barbershop” has a dual distinction. It is both one of the most popular and most criticized movies in the nation.

While films like Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth” contained controversial racial content and tanked at the box office, “Barbershop” has attracted both audiences and high-visibility critics.

Most have heard the basics of the flap: In a brief scene, a barber, played by Cedric the Entertainer, disparages the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for his infidelities and suggests that Rosa Parks was just tired when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Other characters in the film respond angrily to the barber’s remarks and tell him he’s wrong.

The barber’s comments prompted the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to condemn the film, demanding an apology for the references to Parks and King, and the deletion of the offending remarks in any future home video release.

Sharpton described himself as “outraged and offended. … It’s objectionable to cast Martin Luther King, who gave his life for American freedom and liberty, as an immoral figure.”

“While we support these actors, we still must have some line of dignity,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. “That is non-negotiable.”

The criticism surprised the filmmakers, and with good reason. After all, it’s the nature of both drama and literature to depict unpalatable characters saying and doing unpleasant things. We’ve been here before.

Thirty-one years ago, a new television show debuted, featuring Carroll O’Connor as a middle-aged man whose often racist and sexist comments provoked outrage by his son-in-law. “Barbershop” is just “All in the Family”’s Archie Bunker and Meathead all over again.

Norman Lear, the producer of this groundbreaking show, told me recently that CBS was braced for a backlash that never came.

The night of the show’s debut, “they put on a couple hundred extra telephone operators,” Lear said. “There just wasn’t a big fallout. They thought some state would secede from the union.”

The nation remains intact with the release of “Barbershop,” but the controversy truly underscores the power of offending. The right to offend is the liberty to challenge the status quo, to take a position that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It’s the right to say to society, “I don’t believe what you believe.”

The irony of the “Barbershop” battle is that both Parks and King were “offensive” in their own highly effective ways.

You can bet that when Rosa Parks rightly kept her seat and refused to move as ordered by the white bus driver, many white passengers on that bus were offended. Many viewed her decision as insulting and disrespectful to everything they were taught in a segregated South.

And if Parks offended some, King offended many more with his candid comments about racial oppression in America. For example, he wasn’t worried about offending the people of Alabama when he addressed a rally for the Freedom Riders in Montgomery in 1961: “Over the past few days Alabama has been the scene of a literal reign of terror. It has sunk to a level of barbarity comparable to the tragic days of Hitler’s Germany.”

King and Parks took heroic and controversial stands in the face of overwhelming public pressure. A fictional scene in which a character demeans these once-resented and now-revered icons poses no threat to their legacies.

There’s a scene in “Barbershop” in which the character played by Cedric argues: “If we can’t talk in a barbershop, where can we talk straight? This ain’t nothing but a healthy conversation.”

The freedom to have “healthy conversations” was guaranteed more than 210 years ago with the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment prevents the government from limiting our freedom of speech, but I’m always amazed by the number of Americans willing to finish the job.

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