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Why Jesse Jackson’s Not Amused By: Marni Soupcoff
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 25, 2002

O.K., so no one ever accused Jesse Jackson of having a sense of humor.

Granted, he has done some funny things. Like the time he remarked, "Capital punishment turns the state into a murderer. But imprisonment turns the state into a gay dungeon-master." A gay what?

Or what about the time after September 11 when he offered to serve as a one-man peace delegation to mediate with the Taliban, and the Bush administration had to try to maintain a straight face while explaining that such a move "would not be helpful." (This might have been the first and last issue of foreign policy that Colin Powell and Condy Rice have agreed upon.)

But Reverend Jackson is not really known for being a comedian. His stint hosting Saturday Night Live in 1984 was far less funny than the skits that show has created about him, such as the Eddie Murphy classic musical number "Hymietown" (a piece inspired by the Reverend referring to Jews as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown" in a 1984 conversation with a black reporter).

Still, even for a guy who's not notorious for looking on the lighter side of things, Jackson's recent condemnation of the hit comic movie Barbershop has revealed a surprising degree of humourlessness — not to mention his own brand of racism.

But let's start at the beginning. Barbershop is a smart, sensitive, thinking film about a black family business on the South Side of Chicago. The movie has some serious undertones and raises some earnest questions about race and identity, but the overall tenor is light, and the dialog is funny.

One of the more amusing characters in the movie is an eccentric old black barber named Eddie, played by Cedric the Entertainer. Eddie is a contrarian curmudgeon who likes to hold court in the barbershop instead of working. He speaks his mind and enjoys the good-natured uproar he gets from his fellow barbers and patrons (all black but one) when he says the unthinkable.

For example, politically incorrect Eddie preaches that Rosa Parks was just a tired woman on a bus ("[she] didn't do nothing but sit her black a** down"), and that O.J. did it. Eddie's not too shy to mention Martin Luther King's infidelity and he thinks Rodney King deserved to be beaten up for driving drunk. He even takes some digs at Jesse Jackson.

No one in the barbershop agrees with old Eddie, and many are quick to argue, but they don't silence him either. They seem to agree with old Eddie when he explains, "Ain't nobody exempt in a barber shop. You can talk about whoever you want in a barber shop."

Unfortunately, both the humor and the point have eluded Reverend Jackson. He is now condemning this good-natured box-office smash for daring to allow one of its black characters to venture from what Jackson views as the mandatory black party line.

"The filmmakers crossed the line between what's sacred and what's serious and what's funny," Jackson said to USA Today. In other words, the filmmakers created a character that said things Jackson doesn't like.

"I could dismiss the comments about me," Jackson said, which is very big of him, "but Dr. King is dead and Ms. Parks is an invalid. There are some heroes who are sacred to people, and these comments poisoned an otherwise funny movie. Why put cyanide in the Kool-Aid?"

Even setting aside the inflammatory and inapt reference to Jonestown, Jackson's analysis is frightening. It shows the Reverend's inability to permit anyone — but particularly blacks — to hold a diverging opinion about civil rights and race. Not even a lovably loud-mouthed character in a comic movie is permitted to depart from the views Jackson deems correct.

Director Tim Story (who is black) has had the courage to make a film where black characters debate amongst themselves and hold individual opinions, and all Reverend Jackson can do is rush in to censor the departure from the ideology he seeks to impose.

Come on, Jesse, it's a joke. Unfortunately, Reverend Jackson's reaction is not. Rather, it highlights not only Jackson's humorlessness, but also his despicably racist belief that all blacks should share the same worldview and political opinion and that those who don't are putting cyanide in the Kool Aid. Forget freethinking, if you're black, you are only allowed to think what Jesse says you should.

What Jackson is really objecting to when he criticizes Barbershop, and what likely frightens him about the movie, is the characters' strong individualism. These are people with identities beyond their race, people who make up their own minds and have their own ideas about how the world should be. We learn through their discussions that some of them believe in reparations for blacks. But some of them — apostasy — don't.

This is dangerous for Jackson because he has always relied on an unthinking "us against them attitude" to draw supporters and followers. The more people are actually thinking for themselves and allowing themselves to develop their own opinions, the less likely they are to be handing over their cash to the Rainbow Push Coalition.

Yes, by grossly overreacting to a light, but intelligent, black comedy, Jesse Jackson has shown his true colors. He is not interested in the success or achievement of black individuals. He is interested in enforcing his own ideology and advancing himself.

At one point in Barbershop, one of the customers warns Eddie that he'd better not let Jesse Jackson hear his iconoclastic remarks, but Eddie is not cowed. "F*** Jesse Jackson!" he says.

When it comes to political commentary, we'd do well to take Eddie's advice.

Marni Soupcoff is an attorney and Toronto-based writer. She is a frequent contributor to http://www.iconoclast.ca.

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