In 1991, director John Singleton had already been proclaimed a genius at the ripe old age of 23. His debut feature, Boyz N the Hood, a devastating tale of gangsta life in South Central Los Angeles, had critics lining up to proclaim him the next Spike Lee—even though the previous “next Spike Lee,” Spike Lee himself, was only filming Malcolm X that very same year. Singleton started so high there was nowhere to go but down, and he spent the next decade trying to recapture Hood’s power with uneven social commentaries (Poetic Justice and Higher Learning), a historical epic (Rosewood) and even a Hollywood remake (last year’s Shaft). As a filmmaking talent, Singleton had gone from wunderkind to one-hit wonder.
Columbia Pictures’ promotion of Singleton’s latest film, Baby Boy, has made every effort to play up a connection with Boyz N the Hood, to the point that some articles have erroneously described it as a “sequel.” It would be easy to assume that Singleton had taken the easy way out of his artistic slump, goin’ back to Cali in an attempt to milk some more magic out of his old stomping grounds.
Singleton has actually worked something far more surprising and subtle than that. Baby Boy never attempts to ride on Boyz N the Hood’s coattails. If anything, it’s a sly deconstruction of a generation of African-American men haunted by a sense of inevitable doom—a sense created in part by movies and music about the thug life. Baby Boy delivers a ragged narrative, and not nearly as much visceral impact as Boyz. It’s also the most mature film of Singleton’s career to date.
You won’t find that maturity in Jody (Tyrese Gibson), Baby Boy’s 20-year-old protagonist. Though he’s the father of two children by two different women—and continues a relationship with his oldest child’s mother, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson)—he prefers living with his mother (A. J. Johnson). But Jody is no thug, though he’s on probation for an unspecified non-violent crime. In episodic fashion, Baby Boy tells the story of Jody’s struggle alternately to grow up and not to grow up.
A prologue for Baby Boy explains the film’s title in relation to a theory for how racism in America has created a culture of arrested adolescence in African-American males, reflected through lingo like “crib” and “my boys.” Singleton plays up that idea by showing Jody putting together model cars and riding a bicycle when he finds himself without a car.
Then he takes the notion a step farther, and hits a psychological jackpot. Baby Boy takes place in a world where young black men might not bother growing up because they expect to be gone before they’re adults, either to jail or to the morgue. Jody has nightmares about his own violent death, perhaps connected to the death of his older brother. Even the epidemic of out-of-wedlock births is explained in these terms, as Jody describes the peace that having children gives him, knowing that “even if I die, I’ll still be here somewhere.”
To Singleton’s credit, he appears to acknowledge that art can perpetuate this reality even as it reflects it. He contrasts contemporary rap with the “grown-up music” of Motown-style soul and R&B, and has Jody sleep under a gigantic portrait of slain rapper/actor Tupac Shakur. For Jody, being a thug is almost like playing a part created by pop culture—a part for which he is woefully unsuited.
Yet it’s Jody’s unwillingness to knuckle under to the stereotypes of gangsta living that makes him so compelling. Though Jody gets knocked around like a heavy bag through much of the film—by his mother’s boyfriend (Ving Rhames), by Yvette, by a teenage gang—he steadfastly refuses to consider killing anyone to make a point. He involves himself in the lives of his children, and shows genuine remorse when he hits Yvette in a burst of retaliatory anger. As hard as he wants to appear, and as thoughtless as he can be, Jody portrays a fundamental sensitivity that’s almost startling, and sets him up for a more complicated life.
Nowhere are those complications more evident than in his relationship with Yvette, which is also where Tyrese Gibson and Taraji Henson shine brightest. Every scene between Jody and Yvette throbs with chemistry, and proves that recording artist/MTV personality Tyrese—like Ice Cube before him in Boyz—was no piece of stunt casting. In one brilliantly staged confrontation, Jody and Yvette argue on the steps to her apartment, each one alternately advancing and retreating through a battle of wills. When that scene finally resolves with a superb punch line, it feels perfectly fitting for the characters Singleton has created.
There’s actually a lot of humor in Baby Boy, making it something of a shame that Singleton often seems determined to go heavy on the extra-serious vibe. Some of the film’s most subversively funny moments are underscored by composer David Arnold’s ominous strings and keyboards, making viewers uncertain whether they should be allowed to laugh. Baby Boy is funnier than almost every ostensible comedy released this year, but Singleton almost seems embarrassed to admit it.
That doesn’t prevent Baby Boy’s big payoff scene from delivering a hugely unexpected, hugely satisfying laugh. With one swift tug, Singleton pulls the rug out from under the operatic tragedy of “urban” dramas, eviscerates the cinematic grandeur with which some young men might foresee their inevitable deaths, and still refuses to sugarcoat the reality of his setting. That tricky balancing act makes Baby Boy something uniquely intriguing, and shows that John Singleton can be as effective as a grown-up as he was as a wunderkind.
Baby Boy (R) HHH Directed by John Singleton. Starring Tyrese Gibson and Taraji P. Henson.