Baby Boy (2001): John Singleton African-American Melodrama

The inner soul of a young, immature black man is placed under scrutiny in John Singleton’s Baby Boy, a companion piece but not a sequel, to his breakthrough film, Boyz N’ the Hood, which exactly ten years ago made a splash in the film world.

Revisiting the same tough neighborhood of the 1991 film, and offering a similarly unflinching look at the devastating impact of violence on black families, Baby Boy is not as effective, resonant, or touching as Singleton’s terrifically confident debut.

However, despite structural and other deficiencies, Singleton’s return to small-scale and intimate fare, after last year’s stylishly cartoonish Shaft, is more than welcome. Featuring an impressive debut performance from R&B heartthrob and MTV host, Tyrese Gibson, and graced by a strong turn from Omar Gooding (younger brother of Cuba, who was Boyz’s star), Baby Boy may not have the same cross-over appeal of the 1991 picture, but Columbia’ serious summer fare should do reasonably well as counter-programming in a season dominated by large-scale, special-effects event movies.

In 1991, Singleton became the youngest (23)–and first black– helmer to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, an achievement that catapulted him to the forefront of the new African-American cinema, along with Spike Lee, his role model. Unfortunately, like Soderbergh and other directors who began extremely high, Singleton didn’t escape the fate of a sophomore jinx and his next picture, Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson, was both an artistic and commercial failure. The next couple of movies, Higher Learning and Rosewood, were honorable efforts that didn’t find their audience. In this respect, despite its flaws, Baby Boy is a return to form, a socially-relevant movie with an urgent message.

Like Singleton’s better films (Boyz, Rosewood) Baby Boy is a cautionary morality tale, a wake-up call with a critical tone but also suggestion at a more hopeful remedy. The film examines the problems and complexities of the average black family, a single parent unit usually headed by women. Like Boyz, which began with an ominous title card, “one out of every 25 black Americans will die in his lifetime,” the new movie starts with a voice-over that provides a psychological theory of why black men are baby boys: “What does a black man call his mother Mama. And how does he call his place of residence A crib.”

The protagonist is Jody (Gibson), a misguided, 20-year-old African American, who’s streetwise, jobless, and utterly lost. Though he has fathered two children by two different women, he still clings to his strong mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), living in her home and needing the kind of care and attention that his own babies desperately need but are deprived of. For relaxation, Jody locks his room, losing himself in a world of remote-control low rider model cars, which further enhances the yarn’s poignantly accurate title.

Unable to strike a balance, or find a direction in a rootless life, Jody vacillates between his two women, Yvette (Henson) and Peanut (Bass), while showing sexual interest in other young women as well. To make things worse, his buddy, Sweetpea (Gooding), is even more immature than he is. Shuffling in and out of prison, the volatile Sweetpea seems to find trouble in every encounter he has.

Structured as an emotional journey, filled with violence, romance, and pain, Baby Boy is a classic coming-of-age tale, except that its hero is not a teenager but a young man. Indeed, the film gives voice to black men, who have yet to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood, while at the same time showing the hardships single mothers go through raising children on their own. Since they’ve all been raised by women, the young males go out of their way to display their macho side, but they really are mama boys.

Baby Boy’s serio-comic tragedy is accentuated by the fact that Jody’s mother is not only young (they look like siblings), but a sexually potent woman, who begins a new chapter in her life upon meeting Melvin (a splendid Rhames), a reformed O.G. (“old gangsta”). Tensions escalate to jealous rivalry and fights over Juanita’s attentions, as soon as Melvin moves into the house and establishes his rule. In one comic scene, Jody wakes up to find a nude Melvin (shown from the back) cooking breakfast for Juanita after a night of loud passionate lovemaking.

Singleton wrote the script several years ago for Tupac Shakur (who starred in Poetic Justice), but after the latter was tragically killed, he shelved the story. In Baby Boy, a huge poster of Shakur hangs over Jody’s bed, a reminder to the hero–and the audience–of the devastating fate of a talented African-American who’s become emblematic of a lost and doomed generation. Baby Boy provides a warning: This is what’s going to happen in the black community if black men don’t take control of the family unit.

As a cautionary tale, Baby Boy is different from both Boyz N’ the Hood and Poetic Justice, movies that comprise Singleton’s “hood trilogy.” In Boyz, Tre’s divorced mom hands her 10-year-old son to her ex, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne), who she believes can teach Tre survival skills–how to be a man. A former military, who now works in a local home-mortgage firm, Styles serves as a role model in a community in which most fathers are missing. In that film’s preachiest scene, Style told his son, if blacks are brothers, why are they killing one another Boyz insisted on the necessity of male authority, suggesting that only strong fathers can keep their boys out of the streets–and violent death.

This is the link between the two pictures: Boyz’s optimistic tone is missing from Baby Boy, whose protagonist was obviously raised without a father at home. The volatile social and moral vacuum in which young blacks grow up allows them few ways to assert themselves except in violence. Under certain conditions, violence or physical abuse are also used against women. Indeed, in one of Baby’s painfully powerful scenes, Yvette is so insistently demanding, so insanely suspicious of Jody that he strikes her, an act which he regrets second later, leading to yet another reconciliation–and hot sex.

Baby Boy benefits from a virtually unknown ensemble of unseasoned actors who endow the film with a fresher, rougher, more credible edge. One may have qualms about casting the lead with such a handsome and charismatic star as Gibson, who does respectable job, but it would have been a different movie if the lead were played by an actor like Boyz’ Cuba Gooding, appealing but not gorgeous.

As stirring and candid as Baby Boy sporadically is, it’s nevertheless burdened by a repetitive structure, particularly in the central chapters that detail endless arguments and compromises between Jody and Yvette. In contrast to Boyz, which was well-constructed and both funny and sad, this film has a rambling narrative, further marred by a draggy pacing that diffuses the story’s focus and relevance. Cloaking in at two hours plus, the film could have easily lost 20 minutes without risking its coherence or integrity.