Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads

Created by
Spike Lee, American, born 1957
Subject of
Ross, Monty, American, born 1957
Hicks, Tommie Redmond, American
Owned by
D.C. Public Library, American, founded 1896
16mm Film (a): acetate film
Duration: 53 Minutes
Length (Film): 1900 Feet
16mm motion picture film of Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
"Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" is famed director Spike Lee's first feature film. Lee submitted the film as his thesis while attending New York University's filmmaking master's program. The film tells the story of a barbershop owner who must decide whether or not to make a deal with a local gangster in order to keep his shop open.
"Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" is famed director Spike Lee's first feature film. Lee submitted the film as his thesis while attending New York University's filmmaking master's program. The film tells the story of a barbershop owner who must decide whether or not to make a deal with a local gangster in order to keep his shop open.
Consists of: 16mm Film (a).
2017.55.22.1a:16mm film. The film begins with two men speaking idly in voiceover over black before one demands that the other starts the film. The credit sequence then proceeds. The first scene opens with a tracking and panning shots of a barbershop as the proprietor, Joe, packs a suitcase and closes the shop. The scene ends with two men demanding that Joe accompany them in their car. In the car, Joe attempts to make conversation to no avail.
In the next scene, Joe begs for his life as the men tie cinderblocks to his body and toss him in the East River as retribution for stealing money from them.
Zach, Joe's business partner, and his wife, Ruth, discuss what do about the barbershop now that Joe is dead. She insists that he sells it, while he refuses to do so. Ruth informs him that people only frequented the shop to play the numbers, not get their hair cut. A montage of Zach walking to the shop and opening for the day follows.
Zach idles away the day in a mostly empty shop until a single customer comes in for a shave. The customer says the shop isn't the same without Joe running the numbers and overpays for his shave to help Zach when he is informed that Zach won't continue the racket. The film returns to Zach's home as Ruth returns from work. The two playfully continue their conversation about selling the shop.
The subsequent scene takes place at the Department of Social Services where Ruth works. She is introduced to Teapot, a teenager at risk of falling into a life of crime. She pushes a resistant Zach to hire him in order to keep on the straight and narrow. In the next scene, Zach finds Teapot waiting outside the shop and puts him to work. Over a game of checkers, Teapot asks Zach why he doesn't have any customers. Zach explains that he won't do the processed hairstyles that have become popular. As Teapot sweeps up for the day, Zach informs him not to come in because he has some thinking to do.
The next scene begins with a long panning shot of a group of young people standing in a circle around a boombox in the lobby of an apartment building. The boombox is turned on and the young people begin dancing to the unidentified hip hop music it plays. Ruth enters the building and winds her way through the partyers to the elevator, which she finds broken. She climbs the stairs to the apartment of Ms. Figueroa who initially refuses to open the door.
The film cuts to the two men that murdered Joe standing over Zach as he naps in his barbershop. They ask him to go with them to meet their boss; he refuses and they besat him before taking him to an unidentified basement. The man who stopped in for a shave earlier in the film emerges from the darkness and identifies himself as Nicholas Lovejoy and the person responsible for running the numbers in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He tries to persuade Zach to continue taking people's numbers using the rhetoric of black empowerment. Zach appears to agree under duress.
In an aside from the main plot, Teapot walks along the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights he comes across a model and photographer engaged in a photoshoot.
The subsequent scene begins with Zach examining his wounds in a mirror at home. He sits down at a table and Ruth brings him something to eat. It is apparent that he has lied about the source of his injuries. Ruth implores him to reconsider his position on doing processed hairstyles in order to drum up business; to her frustration, he again refuses. She tries to convince him to join her at her parents' home in Atlanta, but he rejects the offer out of hand. Nicholas Lovejoy appears at the door and presents himself as Zach's business associate. A skeptical Ruth questions Lovejoy, who presents himself as an investor and mentions the value of the land where the barbershop sits.
In the next scene, Lovejoy explains how to run the numbers to Zach as the two stand together at the Dean St. subway station. The film cuts to Zach's now very busy barber shop. Zach cuts hair as Teapot takes people's numbers. At the end of the busy day, Zach smiles as he sweeps the floor and sends Teapot home for the day.
In another brief aside, Teapot teaches a younger child how to properly curse. This is followed by a scene in which Ruth returns to see Ms. Figueroa, but is attacked by an unidentified assailant in the stairway before reaching the apartment.
The subsequent scene begins on Zach's stoop as he discusses the attack with Teapot. They go on to discuss the state of the neighborhood as they explore Teapot's now closed and abandoned elementary school. The scene concludes with them goofing around on the school's basketball court.
Zach returns home and is confronted by a still rattled Ruth who asks that he stop involving Teapot in running the numbers. He agrees, but the film cuts to Teapot continuing to do so. Lovejoy's two enforcers enter the shop and instruct Zach to make sure that an unidentified individual receives a small package containing cash that they hand to him. Rather than ensure the package's delivery, he calls Ruth and instructs her to meet him at the airport to fly to Atlanta. He then hands several bills to Teapot and tells him to get out of New York for a while.
At the airport, Zach purchases tickets, but Ruth fails to show. He receives a call and it appears as though Ruth has been kidnapped. Zach returns to the shop to find Lovejoy, his enforcers, and Ruth waiting for him. Lovejoy acts disappointed in Zach and demands the lease to the barbershop in exchange for not killing him. When Lovejoy and the others leave, Ruth castigates Zach for his stupidity before leaving the shop.
The next morning Teapot opens the shop to find Zach asleep in one of the chairs. Zach asks why he didn't leave the city as instructed and Teapot explains that he used the cash to buy a camera. Resigned to his fate, Zach sits down to a game of checkers with Teapot.
The film concludes with a close-up of the shop's barber pole.
Place depicted
Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York City, New York, United States, North and Central America
Collection title
DC Public Library Film Collection
Media Arts-Film and Video
motion pictures (information artifacts)
16mm (photographic film size)
Urban life
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Object number
Restrictions & Rights
© Spike Lee. Permission required for use.