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Filmmaker Ray Patton (left, gray shirt) is making a film about the culture and community of African-American barbershops. Here, Patton and the film's cameraman Derek Wright interview barber Dot Reid. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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(Photo by Jay Paul)
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Barber Dot Reid works with a client. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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You never know who you'll see in a barbershop. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Raymond Patton, a native of Chicago and a graduate of Virginia State University, teaches special education at Petersburg High School and coaches girls basketball.
He isn’t a filmmaker. Except, now he is.
D. Cornelius Wright, cinematographer and CEO of Full Motion Media , and who is working both camera and sound for the project as well as producing and editing the film, is soon to embark with Patton on an 11-city cross-country tour. Their mission is to create a documentary about the culture of the black barbershop. There’s a series of comedy movies that use as a backdrop the lives that whirl around a barbershop and a segment of a PBS radio program “Tell Me More” that involves discussion of the day’s events emulating the free form style of the discourse in a barbershop.
There’ve also been documentaries about black women’s hair styles and salons. But Patton and Wright’s film (the working title now is “The Perfect Blend”) may be the first glimpse into this particular cultural touchstone.
“It’s the highlight of my week,” Patton says of his weekly sojourns to the barbershop. “I go on Friday or Saturday, and there you can hear conversations about everything; sports, social issues, you vent frustrations, you share life experiences and your happiness. You name it and it happens in the barbershop. If something happens in the community, guaranteed somebody in the barbershop knows all the details.”
The barbershop isn’t church, although religion can come up as a topic and singing can break out. The barbershop isn’t a club but there are regular characters and an informal sensibility. And the world and people’s lives within it are the subjects of conversation. Children come into the shop raising money for school projects, the band, the team. Mothers bring their sons in to experience the place and see men conversing, perhaps disagreeing, but engaging with ideas.
The neighborhood barbershop is egalitarian. Patton explains, “The college president and the dorm’s janitor; the heart surgeon and the sanitation worker – they all go to the barbershop. And their opinions and thoughts are valued. Now, that doesn’t mean they agree all the time. Oh, no. But that’s the beauty of it. Everybody has something to say and they get the opportunity to say it. Everybody’s a philosopher at the barbershop.”
Patton says he can go into a barbershop and spend five and six hours and not even blink. “That’s why l like going there,” he says. “Some people like bars but I don’t drink. It’s not night life, it’s real life. On bad days, I go to the barbershop it makes the day a little bit easier to get through.”
More than just the ebb and flow of the shops across the country, Patton intends to put the focus on some of the barbers themselves. From their training – it’s a profession requiring a license – to how the conduct their business. “The barber is an entrepreneur,” Patton says. Many rent their chairs – a “booth fee” – and may pay the owner weekly or monthly. “What’s left over, the barber keeps. What’s important is that they attract and keep their clientele.” When speaking to barbers about the downside of their business, what concerns them is the lack of health insurance and the hours they spend on their feet. “None of them complain about hair,” Patton says. “Because barbering is what they love to do.”
Some men go to only one barber who knows their hair and what they like. “I’ve seen them come in and if their barber isn’t there, they just go on,” Patton says. “Barbers build loyalty in their clients.” The barbering world is changing, too. More women are cutting men’s hair, and likewise, more women are frequenting what’s generally regarded as a male preserve. “The women who get the shorter cuts – they often prefer male barbers,” Patton says.
Barbers are often as much a cross section as their customers. Some are college educated and entered other professions until they sought a change in direction. Others have come out of incarceration and with a job market limited to them, and a skill perhaps learned while inside, they find barbering a way to earn their living. Whatever their background, the barbers remain behind the chair because of the flexibility of schedule, camaraderie with co-workers, the parade of characters and the interaction with the community.
“Many people in the African-American community just trust their barber,” Patton says. “They confide in them, they ask for guidance and advice, and they throw ideas around. The place is extremely communal and the shop gives substance and flavor to neighborhoods.” Patton will also visit non-black shops for contrast.
The project is at present funded from Patton’s pocket. Thus, his reason for visiting shops in cities ranging from Atlanta to L.A., Washington D.C. to Chicago. The short term goal is to create a trailer and establish a public funding campaign. “I could make a good documentary just using Richmond barbershops,” Patton explains. “But I can make a great one if I look at how other shops in other cities work, what those communities are like, and what people we can find there.” If funding comes through and the travel works out, Patton is aiming to complete the film by this time next year. He’s considering the music component, too. One of the barbers is a rapper. “Barbers are more than just barbers,” Patton says. But he also will need to obtain rights to use other songs. “But music’s definitely [an] important part of a film. It sets the tone.”
The working title, “The Perfect Blend,” refers to how a barber may negotiate a person’s hair who is long on one side, short on the other, but for Patton, the description is apt for the environment of the shops themselves. And of course, the “perfect blend” varies per person – by not only their hair, but their experience.
Patton says, “We want to take the viewer on a ride through America and into the lives of these individuals, through the prism of the barber shop, and how the characteristics may differ from city to city.”
To learn more about “The Perfect Blend” or to donate to the film's production costs, contact Ray Patton: Raymondspatton1974@gmail.com or 804-937-8477.