Back in the summer of 1991, writer/director John Singleton made a splashy debut with Boyz N the Hood, a melodrama about life on the periphery of LA gangs and about the internal and external pressures that were decimating the African-American community. The film hasn't aged particularly well. Many of the characters who once seemed fresh now look more stock; the story's march to a violent climax feels less inevitable than sensationalized; and the hip-hop style that suffused every aspect of the picture, right down to the spelling of the title, has become a lampoonable clich.
But Singleton's skill with actors and with naturalistic scenes of conversation was impressive in Boyz N the Hood and remained so in his next few films. Even if 1993's Poetic Justice and 1995's Higher Learning were less successful, the scenes in which people sit and talk about their lives burned through the writer/director's creaky plots and heavy-handed political messages.
Singleton wrapped up his first decade of filmmaking with 1997's action-heavy Rosewood and last year's bloody Shaft remake, which seemed to indicate that he was done with the rhythms of everyday life and was ready to blow stuff up. What a surprise, then, to see Singleton's new film, Baby Boy, return to the black LA neighborhoods he mapped so boldly 10 years ago. And what a surprise—despite a rambling structure and a muddled climax—Baby Boy largely consists of the sort of meaningful exchanges that have always been Singleton's strength.
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Male model/R&B crooner Tyrese Gibson stars as Jody, a small-time crook who splits his time between his mother's house and the bedrooms of his two girlfriends (each of whom has a child by him). As the film opens, Jody is trying to dream up a new moneymaking scheme while dealing with the unwanted advice of his mother's new live-in boyfriend, Melvin (Ving Rhames), and the nagging of his best girl, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), who's about to receive a visit from her ex-con ex-boyfriend (Snoop Dogg). Jody has mostly stayed clear of the hardcore thug life that killed his older brother, but his idle days and thoughtless womanizing are symptomatic of his inability to grow up.
Singleton places the blame for Jody's character flaws on a trend toward infantilism in certain segments of African-American culture, and Baby Boy is fairly brutal in its depiction of that trend. The film has been cast so that parents and their children appear to be about the same age, the protagonists spend much of their time building model cars and playing video games, and Jody and Yvette are constantly consuming strawberry sodas and strawberry shakes. Singleton even takes Jody's car away halfway through the film and reduces him to riding around town on a ridiculous-looking low-rider bicycle.
As often happens in Singleton's films, Baby Boy builds to a forceful confrontation that's both disturbing and unnecessary, and even before it reaches that point, the recurring cycle of arguments and explicit sex scenes becomes a little wearisome. But Singleton has developed an ability to express ideas through images alone—that bicycle, yes, but also hallucinatory flash-forwards that capture the characters' anxieties—and his gift for slice-of-life exchanges is still extraordinary. Whatever its failings, Baby Boy offers something few other American films have this summer: real people talking.
Baby Boy was written and directed by John Singleton; produced by Singleton and Dwight Williams; and stars Tyrese Gibson, Omar Gooding, A.J. Johnson, Snoop Dogg, Taraji P. Henson and Ving Rhames. Now playing countywide.