It was a hectic Monday afternoon when Bill Henry delivered the shocking news. Our friend, and local film critic, Joe Barber had died over the past weekend. I was still processing the information at the start of the Cinema Lounge, the monthly DC Film Society (DCFS) discussion group. The group talked about how Joe and Bill regularly emceed the DCFS Oscars parties and trailer programs. I mentioned how the two of them, who called themselves “the Movie Guys,” had a monthly film talk at the Silver Spring Borders. Someone then said “They were our Siskel and Ebert.”
That line captures so much of what I felt about Joe, both by himself and working together with Bill. There have been several fine obituaries about Joe, and I will not try to rehash what is already written. But what I will always remember is that Joe was one of us. At screenings, at events, and hanging out, he was just a guy who liked talking about film. For all of his professional accomplishments, and there were many, he never carried himself like he was Joe Barber: Esteemed Film Critic. He was just Joe. While Joe may have been more knowledgeable then the people he was talking to, he always seemed just as eager to hear their opinions as he was to convey his own.
Part of what made Joe so approachable was how he shared his views in ways that were both highly intelligent and completely understandable. He had a knack for turning a phrase to illustrate exactly what he meant. One time he described Chris Rock as “a pitcher who has a great fastball, but nothing else.” Anyone even remotely familiar with baseball could instantly get that without Joe having to explain further.
As an African-American, Joe did not shy away from matters of race. It was Joe who I first heard use the term “mighty whitey” to describe a film portraying whites as the main heroes in what should be an African-American story. But he was as tough, if not tougher on African-American directors and actors as he was on white ones. He knew that opportunities in Hollywood for African-Americans are still limited. If one of those opportunities was wasted, Joe would say so. I still remember him seething when he panned I Got the Hook Up. Sometimes, if he was particularly disappointed, Joe would joke about taking away someone’s “black card.”
Joe could joke about many subjects as he had a wonderful sense of humor. He had a strong, vibrant laugh and a smile that could light up a room. You could be yourself around Joe, who was anything but politically correct. One time at a dinner after a Movie Guys Borders talk, I was describing a sketch from “Chapelle’s Show.” I got to the point in the sketch where the N-word was used and quickly stopped. Joe laughed and said “That’s OK. I give you permission to use it.” He realized that I was not using the word to be racist or hurtful, and made me feel at ease.
At those dinners Joe, Bill, and others would discuss many different subjects besides film. Joe had well-defined and thoughtful political views. We shared our suffering as loyal Redskin fans. He usually wore either a ‘Skins cap or one for his beloved Nationals. Loyalty was a key part of who Joe was, be it to his friends, to the DCFS, or to his professional colleagues.
Perhaps the best example of that loyalty was his long partnership with Bill. They worked together for 20 years. Their quick wit, extensive film knowledge, and wonderful chemistry made their joint appearances lively and fun. Sure, they bickered endlessly, but that was also part of the entertainment. Bill’s dry, acerbic outlook complemented Joe’s more forgiving, optimistic view perfectly. They just seemed to fit, and it was difficult to imagine one without the other.
Joe would occasionally joke about standing on a street corner with a sign reading “Will Review Movies For Food.” He didn’t have much money, and that was hardly his only cross to bear. Joe suffered from diabetes and could not move around well. Even more foreboding was that his eyesight was deteriorating. But Joe did not complain about his problems, at least not around me. He was doing what he loved, and if that meant piecing together a meager living from many TV appearances and radio gigs, then so be it. If it took him a long time to travel or even to get into the movie theater, that’s a price he was willing to pay.
There’s only one silver lining in Joe passing so early. At least he didn’t go blind, and at least he wasn’t put in the position where he couldn’t move at all. To take away film, which was not just Joe’s profession but his passion, would have been the cruelest fate of all. As it was, Joe was reviewing films until the very end, which is what he would have wanted.
Perhaps my fondest memory of Joe was when I would drive him home from the annual DCFS Oscars party. On that drive we would talk about the party, the Oscars telecast, films, politics, sports, all sorts of things. It was also one of the rare times I got a small glimpse into Joe’s private side. I wouldn’t trade those drives for anything now. The funny thing was that while I was exhausted, Joe didn’t seemed tired at all. And he was working that night. Maybe when you love what you are doing, work is not tiring but energizing. That certainly seemed true with Joe.
Joe and Bill being our Siskel and Ebert has a tragic resonance. Joe, like Gene Siskel, died way too young. When Borders shut down a couple of months ago and the Movie Guys talks stopped, I felt like an era was ending. Now I know for sure that it has ended. The DCFS Oscars party will continue, as will the trailer programs. But they won’t be the same. We all will miss Joe’s insights, his laughter and his banter with Bill. I will miss a friend who made film discussions better, who made dinners better, and who made DCFS events better. At next year’s Oscars, when it’s time to drive home, I’ll especially miss giving Joe a ride. Hopefully I will think of him then, and smile.
October 1, 2011
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