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'Baby Boy': Walk Like a Man

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2001

   


    'Baby Boy' Tyrese Gibson, right, and Ving Rhames are two of the stars of "Baby Boy." (Columbia)
John Singleton must believe the truth will set him free, for he tells it, uncompromisingly, in "Baby Boy." You may or may not like what you see, but there it is, indisputably, right in your face.

The nominal subject of this new film by Singleton, the director of "Boyz N the Hood," is the infantilization of the African American male, the tendency of young men of the community to remain, in the film's own tough terms, "undeveloped": living with a parent, earning no money, having no job, fleeing responsibility, denying blame, just partying and sleeping the years away. They have left the womb only in the technical sense.

The movie, in what struck me as an attempt to provide a theoretical framework that it otherwise leaves undramatized, instructs us in a neat little voice-over that the cause of this distressing phenomenon is racism. Young men born into a society that devalues them at every turn, it says, inevitably become such perplexing specimens as Jody (Tyrese Gibson), the hero/antihero of "Baby Boy." But in fact the film never does attribute this mentality to racism; no white people are glimpsed and there's no sense of an overarching majority culture that systematically suppresses young men. And it doesn't acknowledge another powerful truth, which is that millions upon millions of black males aren't baby boys at all; they're true men, with healthy, committed, caring lives.

Nevertheless, Singleton shows us something: life as it must be lived on pitiless streets and in small bungalows in Compton and elsewhere characterized by family incoherence, hair-trigger emotions and an anger that rots the soul. Singleton knows this world and brings it to instant, believable life. Jody is a man-child in an unpromised land: handsome, charming, willful with women, beloved by men, but hopelessly crippled.

He cannot seem to hold a job, possibly because there's no crushing need to. He is the father of two children by two young women, neither of whom he lives with or supports. He lives in his mother's home, though Singleton's evocation of this relationship is both funny and tragic: Mama (played brilliantly by Adrienne-Joi Johnson) hardly seems his parent. She could as easily be his date. In her mid-thirties, she's a beautiful woman who still has her emotional and physical needs. She's not about to give up her life for his, which precipitates a crisis in Jody's life.

Jody's mama has a boyfriend. His name is Melvin, and he and Jody face each other across the gulf of generations, each distrustful, fearful, resentful of the other. Melvin's sudden presence in the house, with his mannish domination of space, his sense of entitlement, his rough, tough humor, his bad reputation (10 years in Folsom on a homicide charge), his bulked-up body, completely unsettles Jody, and the fact that Melvin is played with furious intensity by the superb Ving Rhames adds to the disturbance in the air.

And when Jody is upset, his whole little empire is upset. That includes his relationship with his girlfriend -- also his baby's mama -- Yvette (Washingtonian Taraji P. Henson, in a brilliant turn), who yearns for him to commit in a meaningful way. Then there's Peanut, his other baby's mama, of whom he seems well enough quit, but who clearly still yearns for him, even if the baleful glare of her formidable mother is enough to wither any man's loins.

Basically, the narrative of "Baby Boy" encompasses Jody's attempts to sort out what's important, what's not. The movie takes him through a number of incendiary confrontations, most of them involving a key issue: his control of his emotions.

Jody is just used to acting out. He can't seem to say no to any part of his being, from his heart to his penis. Thus he acts frequently against his own best interest and certainly without a long-term plan. He needs to grow up, and the strength of the film is that Singleton, even while admiring so many of Jody's attractive qualities, does not flinch from his tough-love appraisal.

Alas, toward the end, the movie veers toward the violent melodrama of "Boyz N the Hood" by introducing a mangy competitor for Yvette's fair hand, in the form of an ex-convict named Rodney (Snoop Dogg), whom the movie demonizes in ways that I found uncomfortable. The guns come out, blood is spilled over nothing, and life goes on. That's the way it is, Singleton seems to be saying; deal with it.

But despite his last-minute surrender to formula, he sees a possible future for the Baby Boys of America, a day when they face themselves and learn how to be men.

"Baby Boy" (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual imagery, violence and extreme profanity.

 

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Feature: Producer-director John Singleton

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Ving Rhames filmography


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