'Beauty' Queen Latifah Splits Hairs

There's Queen Latifah the Oscar-nominated actress, the Grammy host, one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. Then there's Queen Latifah the rap star-turned-icon who's never afraid to speak her mind.

In "Beauty Shop," we find Queen Latifah the stylist, who cuts a fine line between her two personas, looking for a happy medium.

When it came time for a female version of the surprisingly successful "Barber Shop" franchise, Latifah wanted to push the envelope with a group of raunchy gals cracking jokes about race, politics, sex and body parts.

The movie was almost too raunchy for its own good. Luckily, Latifah's commercial sense is just as sharp as her wit.

After reports of a small battle with the Motion Picture Association of America to keep the film from landing an R-rating, the PG-13 comedy opened Wednesday with hopes of reaching a broad audience.

"We wanted this to be for everyone, so we had to pull some of that stuff back," says the 35-year-old actress.

"It's not a movie with solely African-Americans in it. Anyone can come and see 'Beauty Shop' and get it and enjoy it. And what they don't get, they'll be intrigued by, so maybe they can ask, 'so what was that?' I think everything plays pretty well."

The first "Barbershop," made for just $12 million, racked up $75 million at the box office. But it was controversy over black characters skewering civil rights icons that helped fueled ticket sales.

In one particular scene, Cedric the Entertainer, playing an elderly barber named Eddie, launched into this rambling discourse:

"There are three things that black people need to tell the truth about," he says. "Number one: Rodney King should've gotten his a-- beat for being drunk in a Honda in a white part of Los Angeles. Number two: O.J. did it! And number three: Rosa Parks didn't do nuthin' but sit her black a--- down!"

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton railed against the film, and called on MGM to delete that scene when "Barber Shop" was released on DVD.

The controversy only grew when other black leaders stepped up to defend the film. In a sharp rebuke to Jackson and Sharpton, the NAACP nominated "Barber Shop" for a 2002 Image Award, with organization President Kweisi Mfume dismissing the controversy.

"I thought it was a funny scene," he said, noting that Eddie was shouted down by the other barbers and customers when he made his controversial remarks.

In the end, "Barber Shop" spawned a reasonably successful sequel, which introduced Latifah's character and set up "Beauty Shop." The controversial scene remained on the DVD, and the Image Award went to Denzel Washington's directorial debut, "Antwone Fisher."

The biggest surprise was how much impact a little comedy about a bunch of guys shooting the breeze could have.

Now, it's Latifah's turn to stir things up, and she's not only the star, she's one of the producers. "Beauty Shop" isn't sprinkled with shocking political jibes. But Latifah does bring a black woman's perspective to the screen.

She plays Gina, a hairdresser at an upscale Atlanta salon who opens her own shop just to get away from her flamboyant boss, who takes credit for Gina's work and criticizes her one to many times.

As the boss, Kevin Bacon is nearly unrecognizable in long blond locks and comically tight shirts. But he's clearly having the time of his life, sashaying across the sets and asking the ladies, "So when you get zee breast implants, huh?" Bacon had everyone on the set cracking up.

"It was hard to stay in the scene and not waste film," Latifah says. "He has that tight walk and tight butt, and he has that kind of puzzled, but aggravated look on his face … And that hair!"

Fed up, Gina takes a loan, opens a shop on a shoestring budget, and several salon workers follow her.

As the shampoo girl, Alicia Silverstone is the only non-African American on Latifah's crew, and she plays the part with pronounced whiteness. That's when "Beauty Shop" kicks into high gear with lots of loose talk, just like the guys did in "Barbershop."

The gals argue over whether Jamie -- the shop's lone male employee -- is gay, metrosexual or simply a beautiful man. And when white socialites seek out Gina's homespun sensibilities, she and the staff give Atlanta's upper class an inner-city makeover. Andie MacDowell gives up fad diets for fried collard greens, and Mena Suvari's love life takes a bizarre turn.

Perhaps every successful hair stylist must sometimes play psychotherapist to her clients. If not, there wouldn't be a tradition of turning to hairdressers for real-life advice -- and Latifah has something to say to everyone.

But cracking jokes wasn't the only challenge. Latifah got to cut real hair to prepare for this role, spending several weeks at a hairdressing boot camp so she could practice on dummies instead of living heads.

"It's not something you can learn in a week," she says. "We might've cut somebody's head off."