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'The Fade': Four Barbers, Three Continents, One Film

Oct 4, 2013
Originally published on October 7, 2013 8:35 am

The Fade — a documentary by London filmmaker Andy Mundy-Castle — follows the lives of four barbers on three continents, all at the top of their game. New Jersey barber Johnny Castellanos also known as 'Hollywood' is a barber to the stars. His client list includes rapper and businessman Jay Z and artists and athletes like Pharrell Williams and Amar'e Stoudemire.

Men travel from miles around by bicycle and foot just to sit in Offori 'Tupac' Mensah's chair for a cut. His Ghanaian shop is modest but always busy.

London barber Faisal Abdu'Allah is a man who wears many hats. He brings his training as a visual artist to his shop. He also dishes out a lot of no-nonsense advice to clients—whether they've asked for it or not.

Shawn Powis takes his shop with him as he travels around Jamaica cutting the hair of notable dancehall artists like Elephant Man and Aidonia.

Although all of the men come from very different walks of life, they all have a sense of deep pride about their profession.

Director Andy Mundy-Castle tells NPR's Michel Martin that "one of the inspirations behind the film was to connect the diaspora." By following four barbers from three continents, he wanted to "look at this trans-Atlantic map that has a very harrowing past and we very rarely hear positive reflections about what's come through there."

Interview Highlights

On the Barbershop's Connection to Africa

[In] Africa there is this tradition of talking and community and society, and a kind of griot storytelling element to African societies. And I think the barbershop is a place that's actually kept that together. It really ties together these different locations, just separated by land and water, but really they are connected by the culture they withhold.

On Why He Choose to Film the 'Shop

I'd rarely seen anything that just documented the black male perspective in a totally sort of positive and unadulterated way. I looked at what spaces in our community offered a vehicle into that world and the barbershop was actually the only place that had for me all the ingredients that would make something that I felt would be an quite an open ticket—an open door for people who weren't part of that community to actually see different lifestyles.

On the Barbershop as a Black Staple

Within the black community there is one business that does stay very sturdy and very watertight and that's the barbershop. Even if you look at female hair products –often here in London—they're owned by Asian Pakistani business men. Whereas the Barbershop is actually fully operational by the black community and it stands alone with the black community.

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It's Friday, so that means we're heading to the barbershop. That's our diverse panel of men who tell us what's going on. And it might be the case that you are also heading into the barbershop later today and, if so, you are not alone. All over the world, in fact, all throughout the African diaspora, men are heading into the shop. Not just to get their own heads tightened up but to touch base with the world. So says British barber, Faisal Abdu'Allah.


ABDU'ALLAH: In that Barbershop space, anything can happen. 'Cause it's like leaving your front door open. You don't know who's going to come in. Got a stranger - want a haircut.

MARTIN: That is from the new documentary that finally gives the barbershop it's due. It is called "The Fade." It takes us inside Faisal shop and also puts us in the chairs of three others barbers in Ghana, Jamaica and in the U.S. And the director, Andy Mundy-Castle, joins us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANDY MUNDY-CASTLE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You know, this story - in a way, it's like hiding in plain sight. It's just like how come we didn't get this documentary before now? How did you get the idea?

MUNDY-CASTLE: Well, my brother was a barber so I, you know, grew up around barbershops. And I always saw these characters and different stories through these people just coming in and out. You know, whether it was that guy who was selling DVDs or watches from his coat pocket or whether it was the barber himself. You know, it just felt like a place that had a natural canvas of story and character and all the things that I think make a good film.

MARTIN: How on earth, though, did you get the idea of four barbers, three continents?

MUNDY-CASTLE: In truth, it came to me out of frustration. You know, I was watching a lot of programs, and I visit a lot of film festivals, and I watch films all the time. And I'd rarely seen anything that had just documented, you know, the black male perspective, totally sort of positive and unadulterated way. And I looked at what spaces within our communities actually offered a vehicle into that world, and the barbershop was actually the only place that had, for me, all the ingredients that would make something that I felt would be quite an open ticket - an open door for people who weren't part of that community to actually see different lifestyles. So it really came out of that.

MARTIN: The film opens with a proverb. It says even the high and noble bow before the barber. And the thing that's - the point that you make in the film that I'm not sure people who have not experienced a black barbershop understand is that is really true. I mean, you will find everybody in a barbershop. You will find a - how shall we say - somebody in the off-the-books pharmaceutical trade...

MUNDY-CASTLE: ...A street chemist.

MARTIN: A street chemist - very well said. Yeah, you will find the general counsel of a major corporation. And one of the characters in the film, one of the four barbers you profile, is a man named Johnny Castellanos - he's barber to the stars, like Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams. In the film, Pharrell makes the point of why people, even if they don't have to go, would go to the shop. Let me just play a short clip.


PHARRELL WILLIAMS: For a lot of my friends, yeah, the barbershop is kind of like where the best topic of conversation shows itself. It's where a lot of things happen. It's where you get a lot of gossip, a lot of street talk. Barbershop is kind of like the hood twitter.

MARTIN: The hood Twitter. But one of the things that was interesting about the film is when you follow these barbers in other places like in Ghana and in Jamaica, they essentially make the same point. I mean, some of these barbers also cut the hair of famous stars there...

MUNDY-CASTLE: Yeah, on locations.

MARTIN: ...On locations. But they still want that connection.

MUNDY-CASTLE: You know, one of the inspirations behind the film was to connect the diaspora to sort of look at this transatlantic map that has a very harrowing past and we very rarely hear positive reflections about what's coming through that. And, you know, from Africa there is this tradition of talking and community and society and that kind of grillo storytelling element to African societies. And I think the barbershop is a place that's actually kept that together. It really ties together these different locations that are just separated by the land and water, but really they are connected by the culture that they withhold.

MARTIN: I do have to talk about the title, which is "The Fade." I'm not sure - does everybody know what a fade is?

MUNDY-CASTLE: Do you know, I'm not sure people do, but a fade is a hairstyle. It's a look that feels quite seamless when your hair goes from one gradient at the top, which is generally higher to a very low gradient at the bottom.

MARTIN: There it is for those who don't know what a fade is. And I think that the film makes the point that there is an art to that. Let me just by another clip from the film. This is singer-songwriter Jay Sean, again, he's talking about Johnny and he's talking about why Johnny has the touch. Here it is.


JAY SEAN: I used to be all right when I used to get my hair cut from just random barbers here and there and then of course I got the Johnny cut and then I got spoiled. It sounds so stupid and people never understand. They're like, why did you just fly a barber out to get that - I can do that for you. I'm like, I don't think you quite understand what a fade is.

MARTIN: You talk a lot in the film - all of the barbers in the film talk about the importance of making money and owning their own business, and feeling a sense of deep pride in owning their own business and being captains of their own destiny. Even in one case and what may look to outsiders like rather modest circumstances, but mean a very great deal to him. Like, for example, Offori "Tupac" Mensah, who's in Accra in Ghana...

MUNDY-CASTLE: The deeper essence of the film really is about desires and dreams and aspirations. Barbering for these guys was the thing that connected them. They all had these ideas that were grander than what their profession was actually sort of saying, but, you know, it allowed them to sort of think, right, this is going to keep me going, but there is another place that I want to be. You know, barring sort of Johnny in a way, although he's still dreaming big and he still wants to create this huge enterprise. For me, he's like the creme de la creme of barbers. If there is the kind of hierarchy of barbering he's definitely going to be at the top of that scale.

MARTIN: Here's a clip of Johnny.


JOHNNY CASTELLANOS: You feel like you could do things, you could be someone, you could, you know, take any - you can be a barber and do it to the fullest potential. And here you are, flying in jets like I am. You know, hose are some good salaries here in the United States, where in other countries it might not, you know, it might not be. It's not easy to run a business. Everybody thinks that, you know, it's opening shop and let's rock. And that's not the case.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about that and I also wonder if you think this is different for black barbers, just to be really blunt about it. I mean, do you think that if you did a similar film about white barbers, do you think you'd be having that same conversation?

MUNDY-CASTLE: It's interesting because here in the U.K. there's definitely been a closure of businesses that are white barbers basically. But, within the black community, there is one business that does stay very sturdy and very sort of, you know, watertight and that's the barbershop. You know, even if you look at female hair products, often here in London they're owned by Asian, Pakistani businessmen whereas the barbershop is actually fully operational by the black community and it stands alone with the black community.

MARTIN: There have been some feature films in this country that were centered in barbershops, kind of as an homage to that experience. The "Barbershop" films featuring Ice Cube and Eve and Cedric the Entertainer and others - so people will be aware of that. For a lot of black men, this is the psychiatrist's office. I mean, here's a conversation that Faisal was having with one of his barbers in his shop.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Faisal, I'll tell you I'm not afraid. When a man cooks in the house of his family, ask anyone back in Nigeria, it's not a thing that you discuss in the public.

ABDU'ALLAH: You don't discuss it?

MAN: No.

ABDU'ALLAH: What're you talking about?

MAN: I'm telling you don't discuss it. Now, you cook, you cook. You're married, you don't cook. Your wife cook for you. What, you're cooking....

ABDU'ALLAH: Let me give you some sound advice, yeah? It won't go down too well, they'll call you a male chauvinist.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will get from this documentary? That they will not have gotten from these other treatments of the barbershop, which, as you point out, is iconic in the black community and as I learned is really around the world - is really global?

MUNDY-CASTLE: People who can't access that space, you know, for whatever reason - women, you know, Europeans, white general public - who look into the black barbershop and don't really know what's happening behind there or don't really understand the characters that go in and out of that space - I hope this just gives people a window into that world and, you know, highlights the barber as that important societal figure that he is.

MARTIN: Andy Mundy-Castle is the director of "The Fade." He joined us from the BBC studios in London. Keep an eye on for details of upcoming screenings. Thank you so much.

MUNDY-CASTLE: Thank you so much. It's been wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.