The late John Singleton's sixth directorial effort, 2001's "Baby Boy," opens with a factoid that may come as alarmingly accurate to its core audience: young black men in America, who according to a completely plausible theory put forth by a prominent psychiatrist, because of racism, have been reduced to thinking of themselves as children ("baby boys"). To support the claim, the film notes that young black men call their women "mama," their closest friends "boys," and their place of residence as "the crib."
(Does anyone else reading this think that sounds familiar?)
This sets up the central theme of "Baby Boy," which is about immature young black men being forced to grow up into manhood. Similar territory was covered in Singleton's ground-breaking debut feature, "Boyz N the Hood" (1991), and Singleton returns to the same 'hood - South Central Los Angeles - older, wiser, more mature. Like "Boyz N the Hood," Singleton brings life to his story and doesn't paint his characters in broad strokes; there is a wonderful life in the dangerous inner-city, people with hopes and dreams of wanting more out of life than just drugs, money, women, and swagger.
"Baby Boy" can be thought of as a companion piece of sorts to "Boyz N the Hood," since it returns to its central theme of young black men in the inner-city and growing up into manhood. His protagonist is 20-year-old Jody (r & b/soul singing sensation Tyrese Gibson, in his film debut), who still lives at home with his mother Juanita (A.J. Johnson), is unemployed and doesn't even bother looking for work, and spends his days mooching money off her and hanging out on the streets with his best friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding), who is now hanging out with dangerous gang types.
Jody is also a young father himself, since he has children by two different women - Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass). It's Yvette that Jody obviously loves, but he still sees Peanut on a regular basis. Yvette loves Jody and he loves her, but she is also growing increasingly fed up with his lies and messing around with other women, and taking her car - which she is making payments on. (There is some bold logic to his rationale for his actions: he lies to her because he loves her.) But he picks her up from work everyday, fixes her car when it needs fixing, pays her phone bill, and cares lovingly for their young son. So, she sticks around with him.
Conflict arises on two fronts for Jody, that will force him to stop being a Baby Boy and hopefully become a man. On one front, his mother, who is also growing fed up with taking care of Jody and wants a life of her own, takes up with Melvin (Ving Rhames), a former convict who now owns a landscaping business and wants desperately to go straight and have a second chance at love & happiness (which he hopes he'll get with Juanita). He has insight and wisdom that Jody would do good to try to learn from, because he's been there and "done it all to the full." He was once like Jody at one point - "young, dumb, and out of control" - but 10 years in prison changed all that. But still, he's a no-nonsense character and has little patience for Jody's immaturity. Likewise, Jody fears with absolute certainty that his mother will ultimately choose Melvin over him.
On the other front, Yvette's ex-con ex-boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg) is back in the picture. He mocks Jody's immaturity and for taking Yvette from him and having a baby with her. But Jody is quick to shoot back that he's been in prison, broke, has no place to live, and thus has nothing of value to say about how Jody is living his life. It won't take a rocket scientist to figure out where their rivalry is headed...
"Baby Boy" is a film that works so well because it plays to John Singleton's strengths of breathing life into the 'hood and making it seem like a real place where real people live, and not just some urban hell on earth - mainly because its key piece of authenticity is the fact that Singleton came from these streets himself and knows what it's like out there. And the characters he paints for his films contain aspects of himself and people he knows. And there is also a certain amount of truth into one of the film's underlying assertions that Singleton is openly condemning the selfish, immature behavior of its central character, while still showing him as a complex individual who still has a lot of growing up to do and is ultimately a good person deep down inside. In fact, Jody can be seen as a placeholder for any young man in the audience watching.
The Los Angeles 'hood was a different place at the time of "Baby Boy's" release in 2001, 10 years after "Boyz N the Hood." John Singleton decided to revisit South Central once more, with similar ideas in mind about manhood but with a decidedly narrowed focus, and he succeeded. He presented "Baby Boy," which is another one of the best and most truthful depictions about the lives of young black men in America.
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