In 1991, at the age of 23, and just out of film school, John Singleton wrote and directed "Boyz N The Hood," and if he had never made another film his reputation would be secure. "Boyz N The Hood" is the most powerful, brilliantly realized film about life in a black ghetto that any of us has ever seen. In the years since then, Singleton has tried a number of other genres as a writer-director - "Poetic Justice," "Higher Learning," "Rosewood," and "Shaft" - but none of them have had the power of his first.
Now, though, he's come back to South Central L.A. and given us a story about the struggle of young black men to make a life for themselves. His new film "Baby Boy," is about what you might call the curse of the ghetto. The baby boy is Jody (Tyrese Gibson), 20 years old, without a job, living with his mother, hanging with his friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding), but having already fathered two children, a son and a daughter, by two different women, both of whom he continues to see. When any of them prods him to get some money instead of sponging off of them, his plan is to boost merchandise off a truck and sell it on the street. Both women put up with him when he visits, but no one seems able to help Jody grow up - and he has no wish to do so - until a change is triggered by his mother Juanita (A.J. Johnson) bringing home a boyfriend, Melvin (Ving Rhames) to live with them.
Melvin is a tough man, an ex-con and a murderer, who has found a way to make a straight living as a landscape gardener. Jody, in his oedipal pique, rages against him, warning his mother about Melvin, feeling dispossessed and jealous and full of self-pity. The film is the story of how all of these relationships - with his mother, with Melvin, with the mothers of his children - play out over the course of about a year.
And Singleton lets us know that Jody is not the exception, not just an odd case. Jody represents the young men of the black ghetto, the ones without fathers, the ones without role models, the ones whose friends are in prison or dead, the ones without a sense that life gets larger, richer as we grow older; the ones who cannot even imagine growing older.
Though the film begins with Jody involved with two women, the story of the mother of his daughter has somehow been abandoned on the cutting-room floor (we never find out what happens to them), and we become more intensely involved with Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), the mother of his son. Yvette has a job, and a car, which Jody feels he also owns, since he does repair and customizing work on it. She loves Jody, but finally comes to a point where she cannot continue mothering him. At the same time Juanita wants him to take control of his own life, move out (frightening to Jody), and begin working as an adult. And now Yvette's old boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg), out of prison, comes back for her. His arrival triggers the film's resolution.
The film is brilliant in many ways; it mixes dreams, nightmares and reality; it pulls no punches, and lets us see the menace hiding under the surface of its people. It is frank in showing the baby in the baby boy. But Singleton has written dialogue that sometimes turns into speeches, exhortations, pedantic recitations of the moral and the good; and at those moments the film loses its momentum. Nevertheless, the acting is impeccable. Gibson, with his beautiful body and handsome face, is perfectly cast. Rhames has the growling menace that he has shown in many other films. And Snoop Dogg is as frightening a villain as we have seen in a long time. Both Henson, as Yvette, and Johnson, as Juanita, are excellent. Singleton has gone where no other filmmaker has dared to tread, and made us face conundrums that we would rather not know about. He is to be congratulated.