Definitively male of aspect, the creature is smooth-skinned, bald, curled elbows to knees and awash in fluid. As the camera moves, we see that he's attached at the belly to a purple, venous tube: an umbilical cord. We're inside a womb, but we're not watching a fetus. The features of his face are too hardened and chiseled. We're looking at a grown man lying in repose, in almost ecstatic comfort, staged as if waiting to be born. And so begins Baby Boy, writer-director John Singleton's unblinking depiction of how a culture of repression has stunted the emotional development of all too many black men.
Baby Boy is the story of Jody (Tyrese Gibson), a handsome 20-year-old African-American man residing in south-central L.A. Jody is an imposing physical specimen, with the fit physique of an Olympic swimmer, tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, rippling with muscles. And his attractiveness is not limited to his good looks. He has a ready, infectious smile and a natural charm. Not surprisingly, Jody is quite the ladies' man. Disastrously so. Barely out of his teens, he has already fathered two children by two different young mothers.
Jody has a daughter by a former girlfriend named Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass), who still lives at home with her own mother. Jody and Peanut haven't been a couple for some time, but they still have sex occasionally. Jody is primarily involved, though, with Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), the mother of his young son. In a story about rampant immaturity, Yvette is more adult than most. She has her own apartment, works a steady job and faithfully makes payments on her late-model car. But Yvette displays her own childishness in her almost desperate clinging to Jody, who doesn't seem even to consider the option of conventional employment. Moreover, Jody insists on continuing to live at home with his single mother, who barks at him occasionally but also indulges him as if he were half his age. Jody is a grown man with a prodigious sexual appetite, but in most every other way a child. He is the spawn of a man much like himself, and he's the bad example into which his own little son is perhaps doomed to grow.
Singleton pushes this idea hard, and he pushes it often. Shortly after establishing the metaphor of the grown man in utero, the filmmaker produces a voiceover quoting a social psychologist as saying that African-American men all too often baby themselves and regard themselves as deserving the indulgences of an infant. In support of this assertion, the writer points to the urban African-American vernacular. A black man calls his primary romantic partner, "Mama," refers to male friends as his "boys," and terms his place of residence his "crib." Too much can be made of such analysis, I think. And Singleton may otherwise be guilty of emphasizing his theme with too little subtlety. Though Jody is a father himself, he still lives in the room he grew up in where his activities include building and playing with model cars. He watches cartoons on TV. Eventually, he even adopts a ridiculously fancy bicycle as his primary mode of transportation.
Baby Boy can also be faulted for involving Yvette with an obviously homicidal criminal named Rodney (Snoop Dogg). Rodney adds an element of menace that serves the film well enough, but despite certain weaknesses of judgment, Yvette is not the kind of woman who would ever find Rodney attractive. And attempting to spin gold out of straw, the film's stubbornly hopeful ending is summoned too quickly and built less from the narrative materials which have preceded it than from the external wishes of the filmmaker.
On the whole, though, Baby Boy is a brave and compelling work, easily the best and most important of Singleton's films since his 1991 debut, Boyz N the Hood. The action includes a brilliant fight scene in which Yvette summons her indignation and fury to confront Jody for cheating on her, all the while flinching with the possibility that her attack will propel him into beating her. The characters are nicely rounded. Jody's mother Juanita (Adrienne-Joi Johnson) can see the ways in which her son needs to grow up without seeing Jody as the perhaps inevitable product of her own, sadly unrevised sexual attitudes and behaviors. Just when we think Juanita's new boyfriend Melvin (Ving Rhames) may prove a positive role model for Jody, we realize how little Melvin has learned, and how little he, too, is able to control himself. Melvin is less what Jody ought to be than what Jody likely will be. In the end, Singleton sculpts Baby Boy into an effective call for social reform, for turning away from ready acquiescence to infidelity and a prideful defense of promiscuity to the far more adult recognition of the serenity that lies in faithfulness and the treasure found in love that transcends sexual heat.
- Boys to men: Jody, John Singleton's titular character as portrayed by Tyrese Gibson, reluctantly confronts fatherhood.