blu-ray series #9: shock corridor (samuel fuller, 1963)
what i watched last week

by request: baby boy (john singleton, 2001)

(This was requested by Neal.)

John Singleton returns to the milieu of Boyz n the Hood, ten years later, but this isn’t a sequel, just the musings of a man who has grown over the previous decade. In the earlier film, the main characters were in high school, while here, they are a few years older, with less hope as they live in a world of no jobs, no money. While contemporary American society sets the template for their existence, Singleton is intent on putting the blame in large part on the young man, Jody, at the center of the story.

Jody doesn’t spend much time complaining about how the man has him down, because his life isn’t all that bad from his perspective. He lives for free at his Mom’s house in his old room, his #1 baby mama, Yvette, has a job, his #2 baby mama is up for the occasional screw, plus there are always other women when needed. I can imagine a movie where this lifestyle is presented in a positive way, and the comedic moments in Baby Boy work that angle. But for the most part, Jody is a bum … a sensitive bum with potential, but a bum nonetheless. His mother wants him to move out because he’s not a baby anymore … his baby mama wants him to commit to their relationship because that’s what a man would do … the new man in his mom’s life tries to pass along hard-earned truisms about being a man. We know from the start that Being a Man is the point of the movie, because in a voiceover, Jody explains the theory of a psychiatrist who believes black men are meant to think of themselves as babies. Baby Boy is the story of Jody learning to get past that indoctrination.

The sentiments are often muddled; while Singleton is willing to step back from glorifying Jody’s life, the so-called positive alternatives amount to “just love him, baby, boys will be boys”. The best/funniest example is when Jody explains to Yvette why he lies to her about his cheating. “I lie 'cause I do love you. Being honest would mean I don't give a fuck. Out on the street, I tell the ho's the truth. I lie to you because I care about your feelings.”

There is some very good acting going on in the midst of all of this. Taraji P. Henson’s Yvette is a believable combination of love and frustration, Snoop Dogg as an old boyfriend just out of jail turns on a smoldering intensity, and Ving Rhames makes Melvin, the new man in Jody’s mom’s life, into an actual human being, despite the fact that he is written more to make certain points than he is to be a person. Tyrese Gibson has charisma, and an engagingly non-professional feel to his acting in his first major role. He is asked to carry the entire movie, and he pulls it off.

John Singleton’s debut film, Boyz n the Hood, was good enough that he’ll likely be cursed with comparison to that film for the rest of his career. But when I say Baby Boy isn’t as good as Boyz n the Hood, the point is how good his first movie is, not that Baby Boy isn’t a worthy film in its own right. The obvious companion film would be Boyz, but I’d also check out anything with Taraji P. Henson, maybe her Oscar-nominated turn in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She is often better than the movies in which she is featured.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


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