John Singleton’s new movie begins with a bang. But it’s not the sort of bang you’d expect from the guy whose first film was the earnest Boyz N the Hood (1991), or whose last, the explosive Shaft (2000), had its Armani-clad protagonist declaring, “It’s Giuliani time!” as he stalked off to blow away a few bad cops. The first bang in Baby Boy inverts such machismo. A narrator lays out the theory that African American males are infantalized, oppressed by racism, overprotected by their mamas, never encouraged to take on adult responsibilities, but instead to be angry about what they don’t have. Seemingly content to stay back, they call their friends their “boys” and their homes their “cribs.” The film’s initial image graphically backs up the claim: 20-year-old protagonist Jody (singer-model-VJ-first-time-actor Tyrese Gibson) is inside a womb, where he’s imagining himself curled up and fetal. But instead of feeling protected, he’s about to be aborted. You hear the blood pumping, medical machines beeping, and then a woman crying, “I don’t want to kill my baby.”
Bang. The scene cuts to Jody, eating candy and waiting on the sidewalk outside a clinic. His girlfriend Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) emerges, distraught after her abortion. She’s grieving, he’s frustrated, and both are feeling hurt and inarticulate. And so Jody—who already has one child with Yvette, a son named Joe-Joe—slams out the door to visit his second babymama, Peanut (Tamara Bass), still living at home with her Mercedes-driving mother, who helps look after her and Jody’s daughter. When this encounter with his little boo is less than comforting, Jody heads home at last, where he finds his mother Juanita (A. J. Johnson) hard at work in her garden-to-be, planning where she’ll put her collards, cabbage, and sage, and her awning from Home Depot, and not paying nearly enough attention to her baby boy.
You see how it is. Jody’s a stereotypical manchild, a neighborhood kid who never went anywhere, but instead hangs out, selling weed for spending money, clubbing on the weekends. Surrounded by women, he dotes on his mama and dogs his lovers, unable to make a commitment or keep a job, but fronting as if he’s got it all together. This I’m-a-man performance is shaken to the core when Juanita’s new boyfriend Melvin (Ving Rhames) shows up: introduced by a slow camera just inching along his well-muscled, tattooed arm, Melvin is a serious force to be reckoned with. A former gangsta, Melvin now owns his own landscaping business; he treats Juanita right and wonders aloud at Jody’s lack of ambition. Immediately, Jody’s afraid, and starts pestering Juanita: is she gonna kick him out like she did his brother (who wound up dead by gang violence)? Can’t she get over her infatuation with Melvin and find herself “one of them L7 boyfriends”? Or better, can’t she get back to doing what she’s always done, look after little Jody?
Of course, Jody’s fears are real enough—he lives in a dangerous world (he has repeated visions of himself dead by gunfire), he lacks skills and direction, and he can’t compete with Melvin when it comes to pleasing his young and good-looking mama (she had Jody when she was 16, and so she is, as she puts it, eager to start living her “own life” now). Jody’s youth manifests itself in his inability to make decisions and ability to distract himself. “I fuck other females from time to time. I don’t know why, I just do it,” he whines to Yvette during an argument. But, he adds, “Because I love your ass, I lie to you. Because I care about you.” He’s surprised that she doesn’t get this reasoning. Tooling around the hood in Yvette’s car because he doesn’t have one, he spends his days flitting from one girlfriend’s house to another, picking up Yvette from work, playing with Joe-Joe (“You a future shot-caller!”), repairing bicycles for a few local kids (all much younger than he is), building model cars in his bedroom, and hanging out with his jobless buddy Sweet Pea (Cuba’s brother, Omar Gooding).
Still, Jody has a vague sense that something’s not quite right. Hanging with Sweet Pea in a liquor store parking lot, he looks out on the traffic passing him by and spreads his arms wide. “Today I begin a new life,” he says. “Everybody moving is making money.” It’s all about commerce, and if the world is divided between buyers and sellers, he declares, “I’m gonna be a seller.” Seeing that selling low-level street drugs is not the most effective means to improving his situation, Jody takes up selling stolen dresses. Seeking advice from Juanita and her girlfriend (Queen of Comedy Mo’Nique Imes-Jackson), he learns that even this business can be fraught with compromises and difficulties, as the women offer different suggestions concerning the “average” dress size (somewhere between 6 and 16). Scenes like this one—small, warm, seemingly inconsequential—appear throughout Baby Boy, underlining that the process of becoming a man has everything to do with respecting women.
To this end, Yvette, whose introduction at the clinic is anything but cursory, develops into an increasingly complicated and engaging character. This despite the fact that on the surface, she resembles just about every movie “girl in the hood,” and the movie initially makes fun of her strutting and head-rolling. Her relationship with Jody is passionate and intricate, and not only because she’s an alternately independent and uncertain woman tangled up with an alternately big-hearted and selfish player. Their complexity as a couple is aided immeasurably by the performances by Tyrese and Henson, both charismatic, selfless actors who bring unexpected nuances to Jody and Yvette’s dreads and desires. During one make-up sex scene (after a particularly painful fight), their exchange is believably fraught with trepidation—he of losing her, she of staying with him. The film cuts to images of their joint fears, of marriage and Jody’s death, a montage that comes so quickly that it’s hard to parse exactly who’s afraid of what.
Their commitment anxieties come to a head over Yvette’s ex, a convict named Rodney (Snoop Dogg, in a smooth performance that’s part comic and part ominous), who, when he’s released, parks himself on her sofa. Though Yvette resists, Rodney’s a baby boy who’s used to getting what he wants. Jody’s unable to read the situation through his own jealous haze, which leads to a crisis and the necessity of Jody taking action he’s ill-prepared to take. At times like this, the plot is plainly lurching (to the point that it seems to be missing a couple of scenes). Still, the movie comes up with images that are consistently involving, provocative, and instructive, as when Jody attempts to cheat on Yvette with one of her coworkers and can’t bring himself to do it. The coworker, named Pandora (Tawny Dahl), of all things, comes on strong, with aroma therapy candles and skimpy lingerie at her apartment (point being: he’s managed to get himself there, no matter how “good” he thinks he is). Jody stammers and fumbles. Finally pushing past her at the door, he offers a standard “girl’s” excuse, “I can’t do this.” He surprises himself, at last.
Jody’s other turning points also have to do with man-making rituals that don’t turn out the way he expects. When Yvette takes back her car and he’s reduced to riding around town on his elaborately tricked-out bicycle, he learns a few hard lessons having to do with maturity, property, and respect. One of his little kid pals steals the bike and he can only get revenge by bringing Sweet Pea around, who gladly acts the psycho-fool to scare all the whimpering 14-year-olds. When this obviously unfair beat-down doesn’t satisfy, Jody realizes that has to rethink what he’s doing; he has to make a change. Alternately overbearing and deft, somber and funny, Baby Boy is, in the end, all about that realization.