To watch Straight Outta Compton and Are We There Yet? back-to-back is to risk a kind of cognitive dissonance. How could that angry young man calling for LAPD blood in the N.W.A. biopic grow up into the beleaguered, everyman dad in a family comedy? But for O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, age 46, getting older hasn’t been a matter of getting soft. While he’s not above the occasional family comedy, he hasn’t lost an ounce of the activist spirit that fueled his fires during the heyday of gangsta rap. In fact, Ice Cube handily negotiates these two sides of himself in his latest film project, another installment of the long- dormant Barbershop franchise that returns to Calvin’s Barbershop on Chicago’s South Side, 12 years after Barbershop 2. The same epidemic of street violence that inspired Chi-raq has compelled Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) to take a stand by brokering a 48-hour ceasefire between gang leaders, with free haircuts as the olive branch pacifying the two warring crews.
The film tackles urgent social issues of race, gender and class, and does so with a positive outlook and warm sense of humor. He may not be the man with the megaphone screaming obscenities at policemen, but in his own way, Ice Cube has kept the spirit of righteous action alive. In our conversation, Ice Cube reflects on what he’s learned since his days in N.W.A. and the deeply personal process of inciting social change.
Why revisit the franchise now, 12 years later?
People who love these characters would love to see what they’re doing after all this time, that’s one good reason. But now there’s 12 more years of celebrities to clown on and roast, too. And Chicago has a bad problem, youth killing each other and shooting each other. So with Calvin’s son being 14 now, it’s the perfect time to do this movie and make a statement, too.
You were born and raised in South Central and are still closely identified with Los Angeles, but the presence of Chicago is central to Barbershop. When it comes to issues of gangs and urban development, is there no real difference from city to city?
Exactly. Chicago is the middle of the road, halfway between the East and West Coast, but also with a lot of influence from people who migrated up from the South. It’s the place where you can send a message that’s general, and everyone can relate to. It doesn’t feel so coastal. East Coast, we do it the East Coast way, West Coast, we do it the West Coast way. People tend to take sides, but Chicago does it every way. It’s a nice, central location.
How would you compare Barbershop‘s stance of peaceful resistance and civic action — giving out free haircuts — to a more radical approach, taking any means necessary to create change?
I think you need a little bit of both. Nobody has a clear-cut solution. If they did, we’d be closer to solving the problem. But self-responsibility is the ultimate key to stopping gang violence. People taking it upon themselves and making a change within themselves, that’s the only way it’ll stop. I can take a stand, but if the guy across from me doesn’t, we’re in the same place we’ve been and nobody’s gonna move.
It has to be a unified effort?
No, not a unified effort, an individual effort. Each individual has to change within their own heart to make this work. Fifty people out protesting and 40 people out shooting, that gets us nowhere. It’s about convincing those 40 people that they have to go through this transformation, this personal process. That’s how we gotta look at it, it’s a personal thing. We have to convince people that it’s better to be right and do right than it is to do wrong.
Watching Barbershop, I kept thinking back to the Ice Cube I saw in Straight Outta Compton last summer, who was more radicalized. Do you think radicalism is a young man’s game?
Not at all. I mean, hey, Donald Trump’s a radical! But, what I think, is that you’re only radical when you don’t believe you’re getting a fair shake, or you feel you’ve been wronged – something’s been done to you that’s not fair. As a young man, I saw limited opportunities for myself to change my reality, that causes you to be more radical. Since I’m famous, things have changed now, more opportunities come my way, so that’s what I was radical about in the first place. But at the same time, it’s also my job to speak up for people who haven’t gotten these opportunities. If that was a gimmick, I’d just do the same sh*t you expect me to do. I’d keep it gangsta, blah blah blah. But as a real person, I evolve and gain a better understanding of things. I’m going to change with that, I’m going to be who I truly feel I am. Sometimes it doesn’t match up with who I was as a teenager.
With the all-white Oscars controversy this year, and the fact that the only nominees from Straight Outta Compton were the white screenwriters, do you feel positive about where we’re at right now?
I feel positive, because the Oscars is the end of the road. That’s not where we need to make the most progress. We need change at the beginning, at the studios, with the gatekeepers who chop our budgets and don’t greenlight our movies over other movies. And I think we’ve made a lot of progress since N.W.A. Back then, I did the song “Burn Hollywood Burn,” because there was none of us in high places making decisions about which movies are made. It’s a different landscape now, not all the way where it needs to be, but in due time, we’re getting there. Hollywood cares about green more than they care about black and white, to be honest.
Do you think white viewers will be able to appreciate and enjoy Barbershop? And if not, does that even matter either to you or the movie itself?
Of course. Did you like the movie?
I did, yeah.
Well then, there you go.