Trickster that it is, ‘coming-of-age’ will not be ignored. I remember when the trickster tapped my dad, and he answered by teaching me how to drive a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle. “Equal distribution … Equal distribution,” he chanted as I, in herky-jerky frustration, tried to shift the gears and push in the clutch. To this day, I only will drive a manual transmission in honor of my dad and, even more notable, his courage.
In his heart-rending film short ‘Barbasol’, independent film director Ralph K. Scott uses the tradition of shaving to pay homage to his own memory of his father. Scott knows all too well that it takes a brave soul to ‘talk about’ a parent in a public venue and, more onerous, to choose what to portray of him onscreen. He says,
I wasn’t sure how deep I should go into my own life experience with telling the story about my father. He would yell at the drop of a hat, and that existence kept me and my sisters on edge. I did not, however, want to portray him as an ogre; there were gentle times.
Scott finds his mettle in ‘Barbasol’, a wonderfully passionate film that is mindful of its autobiographical element. “My father never really treated my mother with any harshness,” he remembers, “it was like she had a grip on his anger.” This is the memory he weaves into the story. For 19 minutes, Scott explores two African American parents, Harper (Stephen Hill) and Grace (Ebbe Bassey) Collins, who are cast into a domestic crisis when ‘coming-of-age’ calls on them. This ritual usually is a child’s transition into young adulthood, and the parent and/or guardian guides the initiate into the next phase. Scott, however, is to be applauded for a savvy filmic twist: the director focuses on Harper and takes him on a journey from father to daddy – the latter signifying the compassionate teacher. Harper has difficulty talking to his son, Grant (Elijah Williams) yet rests comfortably in the verbal synergy enjoyed by him and Grace. More laudable, Scott appoints Grace, (played with sharp patience by Bassey) to guide Harper and Grant during this crucial turning point. Their quiet scuffle points up the respect husband and wife have for their turn at coming-of-age. Barbasol, the soft moisturizing beard buster of shaving creams, serves as the tool to move things along.
Practically every scene in ‘Barbasol’ is a pressure cooker of change, and writer/producer Kiara Jones meticulously charts the strains running through the Collins household. She remarks,
there is no ticking time bomb in this film but I wanted to parlay the sense of urgency for this family. It is now or never, and I have them ask the unspoken question: Are we going to repeat the same things or are we going to work on this urgent call?
A game of contrasts comes to relief as each character wrestles to find answers. Harper barks orders to his son (“Boy! Get Up! Didn’t you hear me??”), but listens affectionately to Grace’s subtle warm plea (“Harper, honey, [Grant] just wants you to like him. It’s not too late.”); the latter sealed with a kiss. Harper’s father is Ed ‘Super Chief’ Collins (played with unfettered zeal by William Jay Marshall). Once a decorated police chief of 25 years, Super Chief now is a snarly curmudgeon throwing insults to Harper and Grant from a wheelchair (“what the hell you standing there with your thumb up your ass for!?”). Father and son scramble to please the Super Chief.
Cinematographer Eric Branco masterfully envisions the tenuity of marital protocol Grace and Harper must handle at this juncture in their marriage. His establishing shot captures the delicacy of early morning awakenings. “Because some of the dialogue is so sharp,” Branco says, “there is a danger that the film would become too violent, so Ralph and I specifically went for a very smooth and a very pleasant morning scene.” In one instance, Grant enters his parent’s bedroom with caution, and when ‘Grace’ invites him in, Branco treats audiences to a relaxed moment between mother and son. In another, Branco’s medium close-up sharply defines Grant’s alarming vulnerability in the enclosed space of the bathroom. With straight razor in hand, Harper begins his awkward attempt to teach his son how to shave. Grant winces. Harper growls, “Don’t be a little baby! Real men shave!” It is scary but “we know that Grant is safe with Harper because of his gentle interaction with Grace,” Jones reveals, “so we continue with Harper on his journey.”
In conjunction with rights-of-passage, Scott’s direction is a flawless dramatization of health issues most families grapple with as they witness their elders pass from vibrant self-sufficient caretakers to patients suffering with dementia. “When my father started coming down with dementia,” he recalls, “it was scary and tragic. He kept himself together; when I would visit him, his fingernails would be disgustingly long and dirty. I would clip and file his nails. He would sit there just as calm as if I was the prettiest beautician. It is those moments that drew me to write in the story about Harper’s and Grant’s visit to shave the Super Chief.” Ever aware of his father’s legacy, Scott ministers a heartwarming and uplifting denouement to Super Chief’s verbal madness.
Stephen Hill is dexterous in his smooth transition from gruff father to the huggable-lovable teddy bear with Grace to the humble son during his visits with the Super Chief; and, Elijah Williams carries Grant’s vulnerability with honest reserve.
‘Barbasol’ made its New York debut at the Urbanworld Film Festival in September 2012. For more information visit http://www.socialcinemaproject.com
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