Directed by John Singleton. Starring Tyrese Gibson, Omar Gooding, A.J. Johnson, Taraji P. Henson, Snoop Dogg, Tamara Laseon Bass, Ving Rhames. (2001, R, 129 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 29, 2001
In Baby Boy, writer/director/producer John Singleton puts forth a lot of provocative ideas regarding our culture's infantilization of African-American men, not least of these ideas being the young men's willing acceptance of their stunted emotional growth and their complicity in maintaining the status quo. This subject matter alone makes Baby Boy a work worth supporting -- if nothing else, its thematic originality makes it a unique and groundbreaking work. We only wish that Singleton's narrative chops were equal to the story he has to tell. Baby Boy suffers from several patches of unclear storytelling and Singleton's over-reliance on conveying ideas through awkward speeches instead of revealing them implicitly through the characters' actions. Everything is spelled out and underlined, as though we might not understand things if they dared be more subtle. Lines between dreams and reality are frequently blurred to unnecessary effect, and contribute to a confusing climax that sets off violent third-act dramatics that seem completely out of place in this psychological character study. Jody is the 20-year-old man-child at the center of this story. He lives with his mother, despite having fathered two children with two different women. And the funny thing is, he thinks of himself as a good father even though he does nothing to provide for his children's welfare or the well-being of their mothers. The film opens with one of the most arresting images we are likely to see this year: the sight of Jody in his mother's womb as the narrator states Singleton's catchy hypothesis about black manhood. It then cuts to the image of Jody (Gibson) standing on the street eating candy while he waits for Yvette (Henson) to come out of the abortion clinic. Yvette's his main mamma, but when she proves to be in no mood for Jody's irresponsibility, he goes over to visit Peanut (Bass), the mother of his other baby. Jody coasts happily through life this way, but his routine becomes threatened when his mother Juanita -- a vibrant woman in her mid-thirties who is always telling Jody that he ought to leave the nest -- invites her new boyfriend Walter (Rhames) to move into their house. The imposing Walter is a reformed OG, who has set up a nice landscaping business after spending 10 years in lockup. Jody fears that he will be usurped by Walter and evicted from his mother's home -- and here, there's also some murky backstory about a brother who left the picture after the arrival of Juanita's last boyfriend. Yvette simultaneously takes back the use of her car (which reduces Jody to riding around on his bicycle) and is visited by an old boyfriend (Snoop Dogg), who has just been released from prison and has set up his new roost in her living room. Meanwhile, Jody has also discovered that he'll never make it out of South Central until he takes control of his economic destiny -- but he does so by selling boosted dresses at the neighborhood beauty parlors. Baby Boy presents a fascinating jumble of ideas that it never fully resolves despite its on-the-surface happy ending. Or maybe it's that the resolutions are flimsy, and nevertheless sidestep the story's essential conflict: that of how one becomes a man. Singleton regards Baby Boy as part of a South Central trilogy that began with his breakout movie Boyz N the Hood, and continued with Poetic Justice, which starred Janet Jackson and slain star Tupac Shakur, for whom Baby Boy had been written. Although the performances in Baby Boy are generally solid (with special kudos going to Johnson and Rhames), the role of Jody cries out for the presence of someone like Shakur, who so embodied that brash but sensitive man-child vibe. (Shakur does appear, however, in a giant wall poster in Jody's bedroom.) Baby Boy cries out too -- with a troubled but dire urgency that cannot be ignored.