'Cutting Edge': Inside Black Barbershops
ED GORDON, host:
For decades black men have held court in the barbershop. In the barbershop, anything goes. Men debate the weightier issues of the world and argue over women, sports and music. At Levels Barbershop in Harlem, the changing face of the neighborhood is evident in the clientele, but not the flow of the conversation. Cutting Edge is a new documentary that gives you an inside view of the shop. I spoke with Malik Morris, one of the barbers featured in Cutting Edge, and Amani Martin, the producer.
GORDON: Amani, let me start with you and the production and thinking about putting Cutting Edge together. One might think, at this point, we've seen the movies Barbershop. We've seen some books written about the barbershop, and the history, and the grand tradition. Some may think that this story is covered. What's different about this documentary?
Mr. AMANI MARTIN (Producer, Cutting Edge): Well, what we felt had not been done was a real-life, true depiction of what happens in a black barbershop. I mean, we've seen the movie; but obviously, the movie is scripted. You've seen the books, but that's different. This is the first documentary where we captured the essence of a black barbershop.
GORDON: Now, Malik, talk to me a little bit about the idea of the environment of the barbershop. One of the things that I've noticed in the barbers that I've gone to, particularly over the last four or five--you know, I have a couple in different--they all have bought into this, the we give the best wisdom here. There is competition between barbershops, not only for the best haircut, but the best wisdom and talk, isn't there.
Mr. MALIK MORRIS (Barber): Yes. It's like you're so free in what you can, what you believe, no one can tell you anything.
(Soundbite of documentary, "Cutting Edge")
Unidentified Man #1: So you're saying that guys only working to satisfy the women.
Unidentified Man #2: Basically, if there was no women on this earth, I know you ain't going to work.
Unidentified Man #1: That's stupid, man.
Unidentified Man #2: I'm not going to work the next day, man.
Unidentified Man #1: You got to be kidding me man. That's not my motive, though, though...
Mr. MORRIS: When you're talking, you don't have to worry about getting in trouble. You don't have to worry about who's watching me. So you feel comfortable just letting yourself go, so.
GORDON: Amani, what did you find in the footage to be the most interesting conversation that they engaged in during the day?
Mr. MARTIN: People coming in and airing out the most personal family problems. We had a young man about 24 years old who had been kicked out of his house by his mother, and he was incredibly bitter about it. And actually, the reason that he and his mother, who were estranged, happened to be in the shop was because they both shared a barber. So, literally, the barbershop was bringing them together.
And they then began to kind of go back and forth about why he had been kicked out and her defending her reasons for kicking him out, and everyone who was sitting in the barbershop was participating in the conversation, not really taking a side, but really helping this family. It was almost a form of family therapy in the barbershop. And many of these people who are giving the therapy didn't even know these people before they went into the shop.
GORDON: Malik, you know what's interesting to me is to watch the change in a barbershop when a female enters, whether it's a female barber. Some barbers will have the lady with the side chair who does hair on Wednesdays and Thursdays only, or a mother who brings her son in. But the whole dynamic changes, doesn't it?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, it all depends. If she's been there for a while, then pretty much she's going to blend...
GORDON: Right, she's one of the boys at that point.
Mr. MORRIS: She's one of the boys now. So we're going to talk how we would talk if that is a guy. But if a girl walks in off the streets, we kind of like curb our tongue, see how she is. If she's uptight, we'll just kind of like, well, let's just wait until she gets out of here to kind of like finish off our conversation. But if she's kind of like cool, you can blend it right in the conversation to get her open, help the conversation out.
(Soundbite of documentary "Cutting Edge")
Unknown Woman: I asked this one brother, I said-and I believe he didn't know. I said, is there a difference between sex raw, and sex with a condom? He said, well, there's freedom and there's jail and that's it.
GORDON: One of the interesting things here with the barbershop that you picked is it's smack-dab on 125th Street in Harlem, which brings its own flavor to it.
Mr. MARTIN: You've got the heart of Harlem. Harlem right now is becoming more diverse to it. So it's even becoming more popular. Harlem is like, what, the Mecca of New, as my brother would say. So, yeah, to me, I mean, I can work anywhere. But at this particular time, working at this barbershop was the perfect place, perfect start.
GORDON: What about Malik when you have such a diverse clientele as your shop does, where you see executives, where you see laypeople; you even have some whites who come to this shop. How does that dynamic play itself out?
Mr. MORRIS: Well, certain topics you want to stay away from. I mean, I'm not saying don't speak on certain issues, but I would say certain energies you should leave at home. Like if you're somebody that doesn't like a white person and you're in there talking about white people, you have to change that because you're going to lose this potential white client who can also bring other white clients to your shop. So what we try to do is we try to curb our tongue when women come in, of course when children come in, and somebody who is of another race. So, yes, that does play a big part.
GORDON: Go ahead, Amani, pick up.
Mr. MARTIN: I was just going to say, this is a barbershop, a black barbershop in Harlem. So, yes, Harlem is diversifying, but, you know, the overwhelming majority of the clients are black and male in this particular barbershop and in most barbershops in Harlem. And because the barbershop is a black institution, I didn't feel that the conversation changed all that much when white clients walked in or when women walked in. Several of the cameramen were white, and I didn't feel like they influenced the way that people--people were very open. And the conversation was not any different than if everyone in the shop had been black at that time.
GORDON: Malik Morris and Amani Martin, we'll look forward to seeing the Cutting Edge. And for those who have never had the pleasure of sitting in a black barbershop and getting all of what you've heard about, this is a good way to do it. Gentlemen, thanks.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.
Mr. MORRIS: Thank you very much, Ed.
GORDON: Amani Martin produced the documentary, Cutting Edge, and Malik Morris is one of the featured barbers. The movie premiers tonight on Cinemax.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.