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‘The Barber Of Little Rock,’ Oscar-Contending Film About Heroic Warrior For Economic Justice, Gets Assist From Dwyane Wade

NBA Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade is considered one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball, winner of three NBA championships and a gold medal at the Olympic Games. For those accomplishments, he and the rare sports figures on his level earn widespread public adulation.

“As athletes, we get tags on us — called heroes. We’re looked at as heroes, by a lot of people in the world,” Wade notes. “And I’m not saying that that’s not right for what we do, but when you talk about real heroes, we’re talking about the Arlos of the world.”

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Arlo Washington in 'The Barber of Little Rock'
Arlo Washington in ‘The Barber of Little Rock’

The Arlo he’s referring to is Arlo Washington, the man at the center of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary The Barber of Little Rock, directed by John Hoffman and Christine Turner. Washington became a successful barber and later founded a barber school in the Arkansas capital, but he didn’t stop there. Out of a converted shipping container in the parking lot of his barber school, Washington runs People Trust, a nonprofit loan center. It’s meant to make a dent in the racial economic disparities in this country, which has seen — decade after decade — white people acquire generational wealth while Black people have been left behind.

“The lives that he’s saving,” says Wade, who executive produces the film alongside Dan Cogan, Liz Garbus and Jon Bardin of Story Syndicate, “the lives that he’s impacting, and even the kids that’s getting a chance to experience and see what he’s doing – you’ve got to have these heroes in your community.”

The converted shipping container that houses People Trust.
The converted shipping container that houses People Trust.

The Barber of Little Rock began streaming on The New Yorker website on Friday. It’s available for free there, as well as on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel. In the film, Washington introduces himself, saying, “My purpose in life is to advance equity and create opportunities and build the community.” He describes the distress felt by so many people where he lives — a reality across the country for millions of low-income Americans — who do not have access to capital.

“It is a challenge when you can’t put gas in your car, when you can’t buy food, you can’t pay your light bill, or you can’t pay your rent,” he says. “Life is going on, life is happening, and you’re trying to put a band-aid and stop the bleeding on the effects of generational poverty. Investments and resources that are meant to get to these communities haven’t gotten to them.”

People Trust, Washington’s nonprofit, is a Community Development Financial Institution, an initiative under the U.S. Treasury Department “dedicated to delivering responsible, affordable lending to help low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged people and communities join the economic mainstream.”

Director Christine Turner
Director Christine Turner

“[Washington] came to this really in an organic kind of way,” Turner, the co-director, explains. “Early, early on, he began providing loans to people who reached out to him. As a barber in the Black community, in many ways he’s very much a pillar and a person that people look to… Over the years, he developed this CDFI nonprofit loan fund, and it has grown tremendously.”

The causes of the persistent racial wealth gap, of course, go back to the original sin of slavery, and the failure, after the Civil War, to compensate newly freed people for many generations of unpaid labor – labor that built the country into an economic power. It could have gone much differently.

In early 1865 — as historian Jon Meacham writes in his 2022 book And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle — Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, with Pres. Lincoln’s support, issued Special Field Order No. 15 — which “assigned four hundred thousand confiscated acres of coastline in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida – including the Sea Islands – to free Black people. Sherman added Union mules to the arrangements.”

But after Pres. Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, his successor, Andrew Johnson, rescinded the order “and returned most of the land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it” (in the words of Barton Myers of Texas Tech University).

“Try to imagine,” historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, “how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy [Special Field Order No. 15] been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth.”

Buildings burning in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as "Black Wall Street," June 1921. (Unidentified Artist)
Buildings burning in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street,” June 1921. (Unidentified Artist)

The decades after the Civil War, through the Jim Crow era in the South of the 20th century, was marked by systematic efforts to destroy wealth creation by African Americans – as in the racist outburst in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 when a white mob killed prosperous Black townspeople and burned down the area known as “Black Wall Street.” More subtle means, like redlining of urban neighborhoods in the North and South, has across the decades denied people of color access to loans.

In the film, Washington says, “Capital is a lifeblood of a community. If the blood ain’t circulating, then you’re going to have some issues. So, the blood has not been circulating for a long time. Why is it that we overlook this economically segregated community?”

The documentary also gives space to individuals aided by People Trust – men and women for whom economic struggle isn’t abstract but lived.

A patron of People Trust in 'The Barber of Little Rock'
A patron of People Trust in ‘The Barber of Little Rock’

“Nobody in my family own anything,” one man says in the documentary. “So ownership is important to me because I want to create jobs and opportunities for my boys and my little cousins and my nephews.” A woman shares, “My oldest is 27, and my youngest is seven, and I think about it a lot. Of course, nothing was passed down to me, and I don’t have anything to pass down to them.”

The Barber of Little Rock premiered at the Indy Shorts International Film Festival in Indiana, and screened at DOC NYC and the Woodstock Film Festival in New York. It’s been revelatory for many viewers, co-director Hoffman says.

“At each festival screening, the same thing happened. It’s really been quite remarkable that a white, older — probably about my age or even a little bit older — gentleman, has stood up and said, ‘I, until this moment, have really not understood what people are talking about when they talk about this racial wealth gap. And this film has explained it to me for the first time. I understand it now.’”

Director John Hoffman
Director John Hoffman

Hoffman continues, “You see people in the film talking about they have nothing to pass on to their children… If we can change, rearrange the cells in people’s brains through this emotional medium, which film is — documentaries really can affect people, change hearts and minds with the storytelling and with people like Arlo – then, for the white community, it is hopefully opening up conversations that need to happen in this country.”

The film is produced by Story Syndicate, in association with 59th and Prairie – Dwyane Wade’s production company. Wade says the part of Little Rock that Washington is trying to build reminds him of Robbins, the small town in Illinois where he spent most of his youth.

“We had one barbershop, we had a library, and we didn’t have much. And so it was very similar,” Wade observes. “And to be able to listen to Arlo’s story and to understand that you need someone in the community that people trust — no pun on People Trust — but really it’s about who people trust and he’s living it. He’s there with them. He’s boots on the ground. He’s not talking from the penthouse, he’s in the community.”

He adds, “I’m the lucky one here in that I was able to be a part of this and hopefully highlight it in even a bigger way than it already was going to be.”

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