“Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” was Spike Lee’s first feature, made in 1982 when he was a student hotshot at New York University’s film school. Even then, Lee was showing he had the tools to be someone big.
But make no mistake, the hourlong movie is often ungainly, an example of raw talent trying to hone itself.
But “We Cut Heads” (available on DVD and streaming video) is likewise intriguing for its frequently punchy storytelling, Lee’s emerging cinematic trademarks and its obvious links to the filmmaker’s later, much-admired “Do the Right Thing.”
The plot is straightforward and linear. Zack (played by the almost expressionless Monty Ross) runs afoul of black mobsters and now faces their revenge. As in “Do the Right Thing,” “We Cut Heads” pivots on violence and arson. Zack, who has stolen the mob’s numbers money to create a better life for his family, decides to make a stand in his barbershop.
It’s an unlikely spot to fight overwhelming odds, but Zack spends the long night reflecting on what a man should do. He’s determined to do the right thing and face them down, even if they torch his business. The threat of fire tempers him.
It also tempers “Do the Right Thing,” which is likewise set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn neighborhood. In that movie’s finale, a white-owned pizzeria is burned down when black rage and racism ignite. The passage is certainly contrived and sensational, but as a symbol, it has impact. Further, it underscores Lee’s recurring theme of violence as a fact of life in the ghetto.
He makes the same point at the start of “We Cut Heads.” Joe, Zack’s partner, is killed by gang hit men after he tries to steal the mob’s money. Lee’s longtime photographer, Ernest Dickerson, focuses on Joe as he’s tied up, bricks stuck in his coat pockets, and tossed in the river.
Later, when Zack is forced to accept the same deal Joe had, to employ the barbershop as a front for the numbers game, we’re given close-ups of goons beating on Zack. Graphic stuff. There may not be as much blood in “Do the Right Thing,” but the same harsh camera work is used, though in more controlled ways.
Music, too, figures big in all of Lee’s later films, and it shows up distinctively in his initial work. As usual, much of the soundtrack was composed by his father, Bill Lee; here, it has a mournful, out-of-sync quality that may or may not have been intentional.
Whatever, the effect comes close to being foreshadowing–not explosive like his use of MTV sound with the occasional MTV image employed in his other pictures, but more casual.
Perhaps Lee’s most accessible trait is his humor that, at its best, comes across as throwaway but actually can be dynamic. In “We Cut Head’s” funniest (and probably most poignant) scene, Zack plays checkers with his young assistant, Teapot (Stuart Smith), and they gab about hairdos.
Teapot is all for straightening, but Zack thinks blacks should be more natural: “Processes ruin the hair and the brain too. That’s why we’ve got so many dumb (brothers),” he tells the boy. It doesn’t take long for Teapot to realize that they’re talking about pride and African roots.
Lee contrasts that and other lighter passages with hard images of the gangsters. The fancy-man mob boss, Nicholas Lovejoy (Tommie Hicks, who also appeared in “She’s Gotta Have It”), talks like a preacher about the opportunities created by the numbers: “I give hope, I make dreams real. What I’m talking about is unity.”
That doesn’t fool Zack, though; his face, usually so impassive, is full of contempt for this exploiter. Lee’s denunciation of blacks who prey on other blacks is blunt. A director who always loves message-making, Lee was delivering them even at the earliest stage of his career.
Director’s cue: Movie lovers, you may also want to take a look at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Casablanca. For more film articles, please visit Nick Smithville.