Baby Boy

| July 1, 2001

A funny thing happened on the way to the cinema where I was taking in John Singleton’s latest effort, Baby Boy. For several weeks I had been having discussions with a male co-worker about the finer elements of ascending from boyhood (or “guyhood,” as I like to call it) to manhood. I explained in my infinite wisdom that it is not an easy transition, but it is a transition that needs to take place in order to achieve fulfillment in life. No, I am not a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or any other “-ist” for that matter. I’m just a woman who has had her share of relationships with boys in men’s clothing. Please note that I am not male bashing. I have seen plenty of grown women act like pubescent teenagers as well. The cliché stands firm. Growing up is not an easy thing to do.
And so it is with Baby Boy. Considered a follow-up piece to Boyz N The Hood, director, writer, and producer John Singleton’s film is well acted with a strong story that is wrapped up a bit too nicely in the end. Singleton puts forth the theory of the infantilization of black youth (reminding the audience that black men refer to their women as “mamas” and describe their homes as “cribs”) in an opening scene you will not forget. However, the film deals with situations that are not necessarily black or white.
Baby Boy follows the life of twenty-year-old Jody (Tyrese Gibson). He is a young black man on the cusp of adulthood and guess what? He’s scared. He doesn’t admit this out loud or even to himself yet repeated nightmares of his death illuminate this fact. For Jody, he is already “the man.” He is the father of two children borne of different women. He is in love with Yvette, the mother of his oldest child, yet he can’t bring himself to move out of his mama’s home and in with her. Yvette (Taraji P. Hensen) loves Jody despite his immaturity and constant philandering. Hensen plays the part brilliantly. She doesn’t come off as weak. She simply is in love and believes this baby boy will evolve into a man. Of course, she gets frustrated along the way.
Jody struggles with his libido and his desire to remain faithful to Yvette. He struggles with his desire to be one of the “sellers” in life (i.e. making money) rather than being the “buyer” (i.e. losing money). He struggles with the fact that his mother, Juanita (Adrienne-Joi Johnson), is abandoning her role as mama for that of girlfriend. Juanita brings home her new lover Melvin (Ving Rhames). Melvin has threat written all over him. Juanita reminds her son that at some point he needs to become a man and leave the proverbial nest. When she is not worrying about Jody or making out with Melvin, Juanita puts her energy into a backyard vegetable garden consisting of leafy vines, tall corn stalks, red-ripe tomatoes, and collard greens–her escape, she calls it, from the world and her somewhat Oedipal son. Was the garden an intended metaphor? I don’t know, but intended or not, it works. Juanita cares for her garden–watering, feeding, and weeding. Jody grudgingly helps. The garden grows and produces beautiful flowers and vegetables. When will this happen for Jody?
Here is where the story deviates from true-to-life to true-to-Hollywood. There is no guarantee that Jody will ever assume the role of man. In fact, certain situations in the film convince the viewer otherwise. Consequences are expected for some of his actions, but these consequences are conveniently swept under the carpet
I am able to forgive this because of the impressive acting. As Jody, Tyrese Gibson shines. His nonverbal actions equal the sometimes gritty, sometimes colorful spoken dialogue. You watch him think. Hard. Gibson goes from arguing boyfriend to compassionate lover to little boy watching Popeye with so much ease that we understand just how close he is to becoming a man while in the same moment we recognize how far he has to go. He teeters and it is a joy to watch.
The supporting cast is superb. Jody’s best friend, Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding, Cuba’s brother), attempts to shed the bad-boy image. He talks of baptism and heaven, but still polishes his guns. Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible II) is excellent as the Marvin Gaye-loving/tough guy boyfriend who has seen the world AND the inside of San Quentin for ten years. He attempts to offer advice to Jody, but his attempts are met with suspicion. Snoop Doggy Dog (Urban Menace, Half Baked) effectively plays Yvette’s old boyfriend who is fresh out of jail and ready to cause trouble.
I particularly enjoyed Adrienne-Joi Johnson as Juanita. She is the epitome of mother love and strength. She lost one son to gang violence, but she hasn’t put her life on hold. She is supportive of her son, but she has no problem telling him the truth. They communicate and this is refreshing to see since too often screenplays depict parents as ridiculous, incompetent, or both. It is also refreshing to see that communication, although important, is not enough to instill change. That has to come from Jody. When Jody grouses about “his” house, Juanita reminds him that she pays the bills and that “All you do is eat, sleep, and (bleep)!” Jody is the ultimate baby boy and his mother isn’t afraid to tell him so.
Baby Boy is a poignant journey of one child’s rise to adulthood. The film is worth seeing. However, be advised that there is strong language throughout, an explicit sexual scene, and gang violence. Does Singleton prove the theory of the infantilization of young black men? Not in this film. I’ve seen young white men go through similar struggles–living with mama, not facing their responsibilities, not wanting to grow up, and not wanting advice either. We don’t actually see a particular person (or a particular institution) holding Jody down–he does this quite well on his own. Although Singleton fails to prove the theory in this film, he does unite viewers in shared experiences of growing up. Yes, growing up has been and will continue to be easier for some than for others. But haven’t we all been baby boys and baby girls at some point in our lives?

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