In a film that is far closer to his roots in filmmaking than 2000's big-budget remake of "Shaft," John Singleton's "Baby Boy" is a low-key, often astute, drama. Described as a companion piece to his masterful debut film, 1991's "Boyz N the Hood," the picture is considerably less violent and bleak, but is still set in a world (to be exact, a troubled, crime-ridden Southern California neighborhood) in which its residents can never be too sure if their lives are going to work out as planned, or even if they're going to survive to see tomorrow.
A film about growing up and taking responsibility for your actions and relationships, R&B singer Tyrese Gibson stars as Jody, a 20-year-old "boy" who has fathered two children from two separate women (one of which he is in love with), but remains at home living with his lonely 36-year-old mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson). Juanita loves Jody, but feels that he should "leave the nest" and accept becoming an independent man, just as she wants to move on with her own life. Meanwhile, Jody's long-time, long-suffering girlfriend, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), is beginning to feel like she isn't being appreciated in the relationship as she should be, and suspects that he has been sleeping around. Sure, they love one another, but is love really enough when your significant other almost outwardly cheats behind your back?
John Singleton, whose career has been quite varied ("Boyz N the Hood" and 1995's "Higher Learning" were powerful statements on society, while 1993's "Poetic Justice" and 1997's "Rosewood" were ambitious blunders), has made a serious-minded, ardent motion picture with "Baby Boy," although it fails to succeed in quite the same way that his greatest achievements have. For one, Singleton, who also penned the screenplay, too often goes for over-exaggeration when dealing with his characters' mannerisms, and the path that the movie follows is an admittedly cliched one. While it may be truthful up to a point, the actors are instructed to yell their lines in certain scenes, rather than just speak them in a normal tone, as if to be black you have to have a nasty temper and be sassy. While this aspect of the characters' interaction is unnecessary, it thankfully does not takes up the majority of the running time.
For much of the 128-minute running time, "Baby Boy" is an involving romantic drama that treats its participants with respect and understanding, never fully condemning them for their mistakes. Jody, played maturely by Tyrese Gibson in his first film role, is a likable, sympathetic young man, even when he makes mistakes and isn't always faithful to Yvette. In one of the movie's most powerful moments, following Yvette's discovery that he has been with many different women, Jody earnestly explains that he hasn't been honest with her because he actually does love her and didn't want to hurt her feelings. The same goes for Jody's mother, Juanita, who begins to see, and subsequently falls in love with, a man named Melvin (Ving Rhames), who is a reformed gangster. Juanita's last twenty years have all been dedicated to Jody, and now that he is an adult, she simply wants to move on and enjoy her own life, for once. A.J. Johnson (1994's "The Inkwell") gives a powerful performance as a woman who loves her son unconditionally, but wants, and needs, to let him go. As for Ving Rhames (2000's "Mission: Impossible 2"), his sure-to-be-remembered frog-hopping sex scene has got to be seen to be believed.
Newcomer Taraji P. Henson has the most interesting and finely-tuned role, as Yvette, and runs away with the entire film. Henson is a lovely fresh face whose performance is both perceptive and touching, and Yvette is written with an intelligent delicacy that makes you instantly care about what happens to her. It's the trickiest role, too, as a young mother who is trying to make a good life for her and her son, and would love to include Jody in it if only he could show her some commitment.
The plot takes a wrong turn with the appearance of Yvette's criminal ex-boyfriend, Rodney (Snoop Dogg), who is released from jail and promptly takes over Yvette's apartment. Not sure how to get him out, and scared of his dangerous streak, the film culminates in a false-alarm drive-by shooting that later turns to real violence. While what takes place is captivating, and even effective in the issues it raises, the appearance of guns in the final act of an otherwise non-violent motion picture was a bit of a letdown. Snoop Dogg, who is fine with what he has been given, is equipped with a character who is portrayed as less of a person, and more of an obnoxious story device. Luckily, once he is out of the picture, the film concludes with several extremely well-written passages that wrap up the film in a hopeful, satisfying manner.
"Baby Boy" is not a great movie, and lacks the overall realism and intensity of "Boyz N the Hood," but it is a good one. The engaging performances, mixed with its keen observations on love and maturation, are worth seeing, even if, in order to get to them, you must walk down a road that has been covered many times before. It is clear that when he set out to make "Baby Boy," John Singleton's heart was in the right place.
©2001 by Dustin Putman