Besides the 25th anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads has been the highlight of the Spike Lee retrospective at The Brooklyn Academy Of Music so far.
Not to say Spike Lee’s other films like She’s Gotta Have It, Malcolm X & Bamboozled aren’t important to me, but it’s just that I’ve seen them so many times. Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop is the one Spike Lee film that’s eluded me for years. Seeing this early work of his was like getting a new/refreshing look at the prolific filmmaker before he became the iconic outspoken pop-culture figure that we know of today. Besides the fact that this is a really good film (which I can now confirm after finally seeing it) Joe’s Bed-Stuy has some serious history behind it – Ang Lee worked on it as the assistant director and Ernest Dickerson shot it, which began his almost decade-long working relationship with Lee as his cinematographer (Dickerson would go on to shoot everything up through Malcom X before becoming a director himself).
From Bay Ridge (Saturday Night Fever) to Bensonhurst (The French Connection), Brooklyn has always served as one of the most important backdrops in modern cinema. How could it not? It’s the place that produced everyone from Harvey Keitel & Vincent D’onoffrio to Marisa Tomei & Darren Aronofsky. But Brooklyn also produced Spike Lee, Chris Rock, The Rza (Nope. Not Staten Island), Nelson George and a slew of other talented artists. The predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhoods that produced the latter bunch, like Brownsville & Bedford Stuyvesant, rarely got any shine on film and when they did it was usually under negative connotations (like the opening of The French Connection). Spike Lee really did provide a huge spotlight for areas of Brooklyn that weren’t being shown on the big screen (I know after three decades of Spike Lee movies that this is obvious to most of you but it should still be acknowledged). Between the cinema of Oscar Micheaux in the 1920’s through the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970’s, Harlem almost seemed like the exclusive backdrop for films concerning black people. This even seeped in to modern cinema of the 80’s & early 90’s as Harlem was the setting for films like Brother From Another Planet (1984), New Jack City (1990) & Juice (1992).
Now…it’s not like the relationship between Harlem & brown skin people is inaccurate. It’s a historic place for us, but it’s still just one neighborhood of New York City. Harlem is hardly the only place where you’ll find black (and Latino) people in NYC, but modern American film would have you think differently. Thanks to the path Spike Lee created with his early work, recent films like My Brooklyn, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, Mother Of George & Newlyweeds now have a lane to travel in (not to say Spike directly influenced or had anything to do with the making of the aforementioned films, but they still subconsciously followed down the path that Lee started 30 years ago with Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop to some degree).
Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop is about a Brooklyn barber (“Zachariah”) whose business partner/fellow barber (Joe) is killed by the gangsters he was doing business with (Joe was letting a local gangster use the barbershop as a front for a numbers running operation). Soon Zachariah finds himself in the same position as Joe, and ends up doing business with the very same gangsters. Will he play things smart, keep his head down and do what he’s told, or will he get greedy and see the same fate as Joe?
Although this was a student film, it was Lee’s final work before ascending into “professional”/feature-length filmmaking just like Jim Jarmusch with Permanent Vacation or Richard Linklater with Its Impossible To Learn How to Plow… So this shouldn’t be brushed aside as just another amateur student project. Sure the budget was obviously limited, there are some awkward acting moments and it may not be “polished”, but to me it still falls in line with the rest of Spike Lee’s filmography (and besides, having a polished film isn’t always the most important thing. Just look at a legend like Cassavetes).
Joe’s Bed-Stuy, which clocks in at about an hour, literally planted the seeds for Lee’s future work and all the themes he would go on to explore. The exploration of certain generational conflicts between old & young folks (as seen in Redhook Summer & Do The Right Thing) started with Joe’s Bed-Stuy. The idea of “clocking”/using a legitimate business for an organized crime front (as seen in Clockers) is a major part of the plot in Joe’s Bed-Stuy as well. You could even say it acts as a loose prequel to She’s Gotta Have It in terms of style & delivery (She’s Gotta Have It co-star; Tommy Hicks stars as the film’s main protagonist).
This is the kind of film that can be enjoyed by diehard cinephiles who go to Anthology Film Archives just as much as the Brooklyn bohemians of today who frequent Afropunk festivals or The Brooklyn Museum first Saturday events. Fan’s of early Charles Burnett, specifically My Brother’s Wedding, will definitely enjoy this.
If the Criterion Collection knew what was good for them they’d work on making this a future new release…
This article originally appeared on Pinnland Empire in its full length. Check out Pinnland Empire for more great essays from Marcus Pinn.