We might consider this to be John Singleton’s last great film, before his affair with the blockbuster mainstream, which couldn’t satisfyingly apply his talents to a flashy new formula. Four Brothers had several opportunities to be more Boyz than 2 Fast, but just as Rosewood suffered from a different writer’s hand, these bigger movies cannot compete.
From the beginning, Singleton has been a natural director of actors, and with Baby Boy, we have the feature debut of singer Tyrese, also known as actor Tyrese Gibson. Like Ice Cube, it’s arguable whether he’s ever been in another great movie, but this role is a high mark.
It might be deconstruction, it might just be further exploration, but as with Boyz N the Hood, it was personal. This role was written with an actor in mind — Tupac Shakur, whose turn in Poetic Justice was that movie’s sole saving grace. Shakur had died before filming began, so Singleton shelved the project. Tyrese eventually made a bid for the role, explaining that this character was him — this was his life.
It’s the story of Jody, a manchild in South Central who lives with his mother and has no intention on leaving following the death of his brother on the streets. Things complicate, when his mother brings a man home (Ving Rhames), and his girlfriend’s ex is soon to be released from prison.
The relationship between Jody and his girlfriend is central, and highly troubled. In the very beginning, they return from an abortion clinic, and this is not something that really registers with Jody. His insensitivity starts as innocuous enough, but escalates eventually to domestic violence. There are paths laid before him, illustrated in other characters, whether the reformed con in Ving Rhames, or the ceaselessly violent thug in the prodigal ex.
This is a movie about breaking a cycle. John Singleton’s central criticism is of ‘babies having babies,’ that line we all know but when think about, does have truly devastating consequences. Baby Boy doesn’t engage directly with the societal inequality afforded to urban black Americans, but examines that which is created: the ‘young black male.’ This is someone caught in a cycle of irresponsibility and self-destruction. He doesn’t see himself as an adult, and never grows up.
In this story, Jody comes of age, and given the ending, it’s a brighter and less tragic arc than what we’ve seen in Boyz N the Hood. Jody will have to take demons into his future, but if we’re following Singleton’s cinematic language — symbolism, montage, and the very visual indicators of composition (where actors are in a frame is never an accident) — he’s broken through, and transcended South Central’s violent legacy.
We don’t need the American Graffiti title cards at the end, because this time we’ve learned the conventions and tropes and can read this subgenre with a better critical eye. Only, for some, it isn’t conventions or genres or tropes. For Tyrese, once upon a time — it’s life.