Major spoilers for Baby Boy

 

Just as the greatest lessons are often taught outside the classroom, as Higher Learning tells us, some things in life are not meant to be taught, but understood. The opening monologue and first image of the film explain that the young African American male has been conditioned to be a ‘baby.’ When the family unit in South Central is impeded upon by a ‘baby boy,’ a full grown young child, there is destruction, but this destruction is followed by rebirth. John Singleton’s Baby Boy is the second spiritual successor to Boyz N the Hood, once again taking place in the South Central LA of Boyz and Poetic Justice. It’s a movie similar to the famous debut, but one larger in scope. Boyz N the Hood was about surviving the problems created by troubled black youth in the hood, and Baby Boy is about preventing them.

Baby Boy was a script Singleton had for awhile, shortly after the success of Boyz N the Hood, but he decided to shelve it when rapper/actor Tupac passed away. The writer/director believed that the rapper was the only one with enough soul to play the part of Jody, the main character. When Tyrese Gibson sat down with Singleton and said basically that this script was his life, that he could relate to it, a new Jody was soon to be born. More on Tupac later…

Tyrese Gibson was a model and a singer, and Singleton sure loves to use ‘fresh’ actors: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc. This was his first movie, and it’s quite the daunting task. Not only is he in every scene, but he has to display a breadth of emotion. The character Jody is probably Singleton’s most complex to date, and an example I’ll use to illustrate this I learned about listening to the director’s commentary — Gibson’s smile, an example of broad acting. Physical acting, showing and not telling, was something picked up from studying Kurosawa. Jody gives a smile every once in a while, but it’ll fade away just as fast as it comes: happiness is fleeting, and there’s a lot on his mind.

Tyrese Gibson was a model and a singer, and Singleton sure loves to use ‘fresh’ actors: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc. This was his first movie, and it’s quite the daunting task. Not only is he in every scene, but he has to display a breadth of emotion. The character Jody is probably Singleton’s most complex to date, and an example I’ll use to illustrate this I learned about listening to the director’s commentary — Gibson’s smile, an example of broad acting. Physical acting, showing and not telling, was something picked up from studying Kurosawa. Jody gives a smile every once in a while, but it’ll fade away just as fast as it comes: happiness is fleeting, and there’s a lot on his mind.

He’s a complicated character, but like the Boyz and like Lucky and Malik, he’s a product of his environment. He’s on the precipice of becoming a victim. His actions are driven by a fear of dying. He, and by extension the audience, listens to Tupac music (a song from his final album) and there’s a big Tupac face poster above his bed. Tupac Shakur rose to the public limelight and where the late rapper and his music are a real-world and constant reminder that the young black male, no matter how famous, can be victimized by the streets. Life always hangs in the balance in the ghetto, and Singleton believes that the actions of these young black males are influenced by that fear of death: the “I don’t give a fuck” attitude favored by Tupac indicates that they live fast and die whenever.

It’s possible that Jody wouldn’t care about any of this. I mean he’s a terrible womanizer and con man (successful con man, I should say, though it’s more like straight up criminal), but there’s a problem. He lost his brother when his mama’s then-boyfriend moved in and had him kicked out. He died in the streets, and now Jody’s mom is afraid to let Jody go. But he’s a twenty-year old with a family, and a pain in the ass. Not to mention Ving Rhames, the new boyfriend, is moving in. Things are going to change.

The order of which I explained him – motives and then actions – are revealed reversely in the film. He’s a pain in the ass to his girlfriend (“I’m tired of you messin’ around on me, Jody”) and his mom (“When are you gonna surprise me and move out?”) and then we find out why. If only we give people the chance to explain, perhaps then we can hope to sympathize with them.

Just like Ricky in Boyz N the Hood, young Jody has a son. He also has a daughter, played by Cleopatra Singleton, by his other ‘Baby’s Mama.’ The one who owns his heart, Yvette, has the son. In one scene, Jody explains that he has the kid because he wants to leave behind a part of him, essentially create a legacy. Singleton is reminding us that not only does Jody fear death, but he’s expecting it soon.

There is a heavy emphasis on cycles in this movie. In the director’s commentary, Singleton notes that even Jody’s mom was a baby when she had Jody – there’s this problem of babies having babies. The issue stemming from this is the resultant troubled black youth seen in this film and in Boyz N the Hood, which is always at odds with what Ving Rhames’ character Melvin represents. The cycles come at the audience in a few different ways, whether in the dream sequences where we see a juxtaposition of life and death imagery, or just in the everyday life of Jody, spending each day going around visiting different women and feeling pretty content about it. One scene in particular is a study of the cycle of violence, where Jody, after picking up some liquor, is jumped by the ‘young cats,’ of which Singleton believes to be the most dangerous among people in the ghetto.

Jody struggles, riding his bike, to reach his buddy Sweetpea. They go out and find the guys, and rough them up, kind of. Even though their vengeance isn’t as harsh as what Jody got, what’s going on here is these elder ‘gangstas’ maintaining the cycle. Singleton thinks that the younger cats are the most dangerous because they have the most to prove; a lot of what’s seen the movie is posturing. I think too that they’re dangerous because when a young person is violent, that’s just the beginning of a new chapter that says the cycle will remain unbroken.

The last image of the film was initially going to be where the titles “Written, Produced, and Directed by John Singleton” apprear over – Jody and Yvette are on the couch with Jojo (the son) on the floor watching TV in Yvette’s apartment. But the credit sequence continues over a few more scenes, where we see the cycle broken. This is of course after Jody’s realized what he must do, and we now see that the seemingly endless squabbles between Yvette and Jody are over. Because we need to get confirmation on this idea, this becomes a sensible way to end the film, more sensible than the “So yeah Doughboy gets killed,” ending in Boyz N the Hood (more on that later).

The character Melvin represents the type of ‘cat’ that has weathered a storm or two; he is a killer but don’t push him. He might have that whole wise-man/tough-guy thing going on (note the scene where he is waiting for Jody’s mom for a date, and Jody sees him, looks him up and down, studying him. Melvin is just like ‘whatever’ because he’s already studied Jody) but he’s pretty insecure, and this is understandable. He’s survived the streets and prison and just wants to settle down with a woman. He took his life into his own hands and became something greater than what he once was. Now he’s gotta deal with Jody, who is his opposite.

There is a scene toward the end of the film that sees a bit of a reversal of the “Give me the motherfucking gun Tre” scene from Boyz N the Hood. After Jody has assisted in the killing of Rodney, he comes back home and fears that he’s gone to a place he won’t return from. In the murder sequence, Jody sees himself on the ground, his image alternating with Rodney’s, who’s lying there yelling at him, legs shot out. Sweetpea has to pull the trigger, at which Jody is surprised and regretful, at least immediately.

Now he’s in his room, gun in hand. Melvin comes in and takes the gun away. When Furious does this for Tre in Boyz, it’s an attempt to stop his son’s involvement in local warfare. When Melvin does it, they have a type of connection over the street violence. This scene represents Jody coming to grips with Melvin, who’s been established as something to with redemption. This man takes away the gun, takes away street violence, and ensures that he won’t let Jody slip down that slippery slope. They’re a family now, and Melvin’s not gonna lose him to no bullshit, you hear?

Speaking in terms of the conveying of theme, I think Singleton has matched or possibly surpassed his debut. The composition in this film is excellent; the blocking and the shots chosen all accentuate the themes. There are two shots that mirror each other in the movie: Melvin first meets Jody in the garden, and Melvin leans over to talk with Jody’s mom. We see in the background Jody, standing there, physically between the two. This shot is paralleled a sign of high tension, where Jody and his mom are arguing, and Melvin appears in a doorway to chuckle at Jody’s “spoiled ass.” Now it’s him coming between. At the very start of the movie, Yvette, after coming home from the clinic, sucks on her thumb in bed, reminding us that she’s still so young. They’re all babies, and they’re having more babies. This is a more subtle example of getting ideas across without saying them.

The script of course is just as great as expected. If John Singleton continues down this road of directing only, we’ll be missing out on a lot. From what I got of the commentary on this movie, he’s got a lot more ideas that could be set in South Central LA. Baby Boy and Boyz N the Hood were both financial successes; I don’t know what’s stopping him.

There is only one issue I had with the movie, and, thinking about it, it’s a strange complaint to have. I don’t get why Rodney did not actually rape Yvette. He hits her and forces her on the bed — his intentions are made clear. He’s an evil, despicable man, but he’s stopped. I understand the practical considerations behind it – there was a very young child actor in the scene (trying to stop Rodney) and Singleton didn’t want him to see certain things. However, the character Rodney would’ve been a lot more evil had he done it, and Jody would’ve had a more legitimate reason to kill him – making his choices later on that much more difficult. As it is, the character is evil – up to a point.

I understand if the intention was to just create realistic characters with consciences and layers, but in a movie like this, where the narrative is of the utmost import, I don’t think that complications are necessary. The character is meant to fill a certain role, and in a movie that’s all about the hero Jody, he needs to exist in terms of Jody. If he’s fleshed out, that’s good. If he goes against what is most important thematically, that feels almost like a compromise. Of course, I don’t want to see rape, so it’s a tough one. It could’ve been implied, but instead Rodney just eases off.

This is the last film that John Singleton had directed and written. Our journey here has only two more steps: Four Brothers, and Boyz N the Hood. This movie represents something very important in his filmography – it’s a deeply personal film (the character is inspired by his cousin and Tupac, and a lot of what happens is from his life, just like Boyz) and it’s the last of the written/directed bys. Even though that sucks, it’s a great note for a writer to go out on.

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