Published Jul 01, 2001As I was watching the new John Singleton film, "Baby Boy," I found myself keeping a running tally of things I admired about it, and things that I felt were dreadfully wrong. Like "Boyz N The Hood," it's overstuffed with social conscience, but Singleton's didacticism is much more complex now. Where "Boyz" was a little simple-minded but extremely powerful, "Baby Boy" is dense, nuanced, and mature, but in the end, highly problematic.
The lead role of Jody is played by R&B artist and MTV VJ Tyrese, whose hard-bodied, fashion-model good looks are an interesting counterpoint to the slovenly, irresponsible character he portrays. Jody is a 20-year-old slacker who still lives with his mom and has fathered two children by two girlfriends, and at first, the film has a breezy, episodic quality as we follow his day-to-day dalliances. He plays video games at his mom's house, watches cartoons, hangs out with his buddy (Omar Gooding, Cuba's brother), and when one of his girlfriends kicks him out of her apartment, he shrugs it off and proceeds on to the other one (he unceremoniously demands that she cook him breakfast, and, shockingly, she complies without batting an eye).
Jody is hardly the social-conscience-of-America role model that Cuba Gooding's Tre represented in "Boyz," and for the most part, Singleton rises to the task of illuminating the subtle pressures that serve to infantilise black men (there are key images of Tupac Shakur and Mike Tyson looming in the background Jody's role models are either dead or in and out of prison). As the film progresses, however, the pressures to grow up and "be a man" become overwhelming. Ving Rhames plays Jody's mother's new boyfriend, and his threatening masculinity creates some Oedipal tension in the house as well as underlining Jody's adolescent mindset. But Jody doesn't really need any help looking like an adolescent by the film's third act he's reduced to using a ridiculous "girly bike" as his primary mode of transportation, since the mother of his son took his car privileges away from him.
There's a lot to admire about this film it may be Singleton's most focused and provocative effort since "Boyz" but the nagging problems still remain. For one thing, the script makes the assumption that Jody's only real obligation is to his girlfriend Yvette (Taraji Henson) and the son he has with her. He has a little daughter by his other girlfriend, but Singleton's lingering sexism seems to deem that she's not so important in the grand scheme of things (this is a film that limits itself exclusively to fretting over the future of black men). Then there's the gratuitous use of Snoop Dogg in a cartoonishly one-dimensional role as a gangster who threatens to move in on Yvette, thus creating a catalyst for Jody to stick up for his family. It's a lazy plot device, but maybe worse than that is the fact that Singleton wraps up the narrative with an act of vengeance that is both forgiven, and ultimately affirmed. This is dicey territory for a film like this, and what disturbs me the most is that the film never questions it.