Baby Boy is a testament to John Singleton’s brilliance as a filmmaker — and his weakness as a dramatist. This film, designed as a companion piece to his Boyz N the Hood and Poetic Justice, is undeniably made by an inventive, clever, daring filmmaker. The seamless manner in which Singleton intersperses moments of fantasy into the narrative of the film is dazzling. The metaphoric image of a grown man still trapped inside the womb is both audacious and to the point. The problem is that this metaphor — the idea of the man who cannot or will not separate himself from his mother and make his own life — is really all the film has to offer by way of theme. And it’s a good theme — far more common than Singleton’s film suggests by making it seem a specifically African-American condition. What Baby Boy does with this theme, however, is where Singleton runs into trouble. He houses it in a plot that isn’t a whole lot more than a fairly standard soap opera with African-American-specific trimmings. The details are all in place right enough, but at bottom we’re left with a story about a young man coming to terms with the idea of his mother distancing herself from him when she gets a boyfriend, while he tussles with the idea of settling down and being faithful to the mother of one of his children. And this isn’t bad in itself. It offers some degree of scope for examining the many layers at work here, but the film never does more than touch on those layers. For instance, the whole Oedipus complex aspect of the mother-son relationship is only addressed directly on one occasion and then left at a single reference. The big failing of the film, however, is that it is almost completely scuttled by an ending that is too pat, too simplistic and too abrupt. Singleton is too smart to suggest that everything is sweetness and light at the film’s end, but he comes so perilously close that he might as well have. And that completely minimizes everything that has gone before in the bargain. The tragedy is that Singleton’s script is extremely powerful in terms of dialogue and in many of the situations, but ultimately fails owing to succumbing to the cop-out narrative. Moreover, the film is beautifully shot and, in the main, brilliantly acted. Tyrese Gibson (a recording artist, MTV VJ, model and TV actor making his feature debut) is believable and appealing as the man-child, Jody — even if it’s somewhat questionable whether mainstream audiences are ready for a hero making the fashion statement of exposing three inches of boxer shorts above the waistline of his pants. With Singleton’s guidance, however, the character deftly peels away the varying levels of insecurity and self-doubt that lay beneath the pose he evidences. Ving Rhames (Mission Impossible II), who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, here is offered one of the stronger roles of his career — as the boyfriend of Jody’s mother –and he makes the most of the opportunity. What is perhaps most interesting about the film are Baby Boy’s principle female characters, flawlessly played by A.J. Johnson as the mother and Taraji P. Henson as the mother of his son, who are the true voices of reason and adulthood in the film. By making them so, Singleton brilliantly sidesteps what might otherwise have ended up being a treatise on the emasculation of the male by the women in his life, and in so doing gives the film an emotional and intellectual honesty that almost rescues it from its too simplistic culmination. Baby Boy is easily one of the most frustratingly flawed films of recent memory, though. There is so much here that is good, that is true, that is fresh, that it’s a pity not to be able to actually endorse the film as a whole.
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