LeBron James’ The Shop Is an Unfiltered Glimpse Into the Black Experience in Present-Day America

LeBron offers a seat that promises candid conversation. Walk-ins welcome.

LeBron James and Maverick Carter talk in a barbershop in a scene from HBO’s The Shop.
LeBron James and Maverick Carter in HBO’s The Shop. HBO

The summer of 2018 has proven busy for LeBron James. It started with his decision to leave familiar surroundings to join the Los Angeles Lakers. July saw the grand opening of the I Promise School, a public institution funded jointly by James and his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He was courtside for many of his freakishly talented 13-year-old son LeBron James Jr.’s summer-league basketball games. And Tuesday night brought the premiere of James’ eight-episode unscripted HBO series, The Shop. The show, produced by James and his longtime friend and business partner Maverick Carter under their Uninterrupted media imprint, rewrites the rules on what a talk show can be. Taking a dive into a number of controversial subjects, it’s evident that the King has free rein and will leave no stone unturned.

The show lovingly seizes the aura and aesthetics of the barbershop, historically a revered safe space and bastion of unbridled camaraderie in the black community. No topic is off-limits within these walls. The shop itself is almost a cast member. It’s not just a place to get a shave and a haircut. A barbershop worth its weight in sheen oil can shape-shift into a local news outlet, therapy session, flea market, comedy club, or soapbox during any given day. For the pilot episode of The Shop, LeBron pulls no punches while he discusses the struggles of being a black man in America, even for someone of his stature.

A deliberate casting of black males of varying age, profession, and visibility makes for a powerful half-hour of candid conversation and storytelling. They include heralded young comedian Jerrod Carmichael (whose random, vehement barber-chair lambasting of the Tony-winning, globally lauded stage show Hamilton was a highlight of the premiere), Golden State Warriors forward (and apparent wine enthusiast) Draymond Green, and rap elder statesman Snoop Dogg. Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks also appears to discuss taking a year off from basketball to raise her child. And Jon Stewart holds court as resident Jewish dude and outsider, carefully sliding in and out of discussions and listening intently when it’s time to.

But it’s LeBron, who is comfortable venting about constantly juggling his celebrity and complexion and the double standard in the treatment of his Caucasian counterparts, who fuels the narrative. Over the course of the premiere, he fluidly covers a range of topics, from his struggles with going to a mostly white Catholic high school, to why being a devoted, loving dad to his children is paramount, to having to explain to the same children why racist vandals would spray-paint the N-word on his Brentwood home in 2017.

There is a specific comfort that LeBron reaps from sharing his experiences with his contemporaries. For a short period of time, a room full of black men with elevated platforms use their visibility to spark dialogue and come to the conclusion that their paychecks don’t make them less of a target. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who signed a new $95 million deal this week, goes as far as likening himself to a “zoo animal” in the eyes of his fans. Cathartic and introspective revelations like these leave the door wide open for others to share in kind.

James often punctuates his poignant anecdotes with profane parlance, a light we haven’t seen him in during his dominant NBA career. We get to witness a direct rebuke of “shut up and dribble” in its full, uncensored splendor. This is a barbershop, after all. There’s no one to stifle your expression. And this only scratches the surface of what a visit could be.

The moment that rings loudest came from Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who quipped that he looked for candor from “Mike” when he was growing up. It never came from Michael Jordan. It does from LeBron, his heir on the court but antithesis off of it. Remaining neutral reeks of complicity. So many black kids wish that they could hear their heroes say that they see them. The ability to relate is key. James continues to be outspoken and that intimidates some, including President Trump (who coincidentally is a Jordan fan). James is aware of his influence (and the influence of black people as a whole) and is ready to expose the hypocrisy of how he and people who look like him are treated. It’s unknown what the rest of this season of The Shop will bring, but the healthy dose of reality in the premiere is welcome—and necessary—in our current climate.