As a Storyteller Singleton Still Hasn't Grown Up
From the moment Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) launched into a diatribe about the politics of the ghetto in Boyz N the Hood, the 1991 debut of young writer/director John Singleton, it's been apparent that Singleton fancies himself something of a preacher. His tendency to preach to his audience has been an unfortunate yoke around his neck; subsequent films such as Poetic Justice and Higher Learning were marked by heavy-handed symbolism and maladroit technique. Though his intentions may be good--he's still one of the few African-American filmmakers who deals almost exclusively with issues facing the black community, his remake of Shaft notwithstanding--his films consistently fall short of their ambitions. Baby Boy is no exception.
Working with the premise that African-American men have been infantalized by society, encouraged to see themselves as "babies," Baby Boy opens with its titular man-child, played by model-cum-singer-cum-actor Tyrese Gibson, curled up in a grotesquely oversized womb. With that none-too-subtle initial image, Singleton launches into a misguided tragicomedy about a boy who won't grow up. Gibson's Jody is a jobless, ne'er-do-well 20-year-old who's content to live with his mother in South Central L.A. (Singleton's favored terrain) and moonlight as a sometime father to the two children he's spawned with his ex-girlfriend, Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass), and his current love, Yvette (Taraji Henson). Jody's unhealthy attachment to Mommy is put front and center when reformed O.G. Melvin (Ving Rhames, looking bigger than ever) moves into the house and into Jody's mother's bed.
An unfortunate hybrid of Oedipal and Peter Pan complexes, Singleton's film is a mishmash of half-cocked ideas and unrealized sentiments. In trying to tell us that it's hard to find a good man in the inner city and even harder to be a good man in the inner city, the director leaves us with more than two grueling hours of celluloid in which Jody philanders and then laments his philandering. In one of his characteristic beating-you-over-the-head-with-the-message moments, Singleton voices his thoughts through an expository monologue from one of his characters. Jody's best friend, Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding--yes, Cuba's brother), laments that he can't find a job and hates living in his girlfriend's mother's house; he doesn't feel like a real man, he says, but rather like a baby. Unfortunately, we're only told about Sweet Pea's feelings of humiliation; we don't see how his life makes him feel unmanly. Even Singleton's stock dramatic moment, the fateful drive-by, loses its punch here.
After the success of Boyz N the Hood Singleton was showered with acclaim and Oscar nominations (for screenwriting and direction, becoming, at 24, the youngest filmmaker to score that twofer) and touted as the next Spike Lee. At the time the comparison was glib and inappropriate, linking two auteurs who shared only ethnicity and a seriousness of purpose. Ten years later, it merely rings hollow. If Baby Boy proves anything, it's that no one has any business clumping Singleton into the same category as skillful filmmakers like Lee--and, perhaps, that the one-time phenom might be better suited to standing behind the pulpit than standing behind the camera.