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'Baby Boy'

'Baby Boy' glorifies a stereotyped 'hood lifestyle

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Jody is a jobless, 20-year-old African-American boy/man who has two kids by different women and fails royally at the necessary juggling act. He still lives -- and has outstayed his welcome -- at home in South Central L.A. with his mama. She's a cool lady, young enough to be his sister, whose big new boyfriend poses a big new threat to her ever-so-indulged and self-indulgent "Baby Boy."

The themes and stomping grounds are familiar for writer-director John Singleton, who charged and changed black cinema with "Boyz N the Hood" (1991), a potent look at the impact of violence on an inner-city family, and followed it up with the less potent semi-sequel, "Poetic Justice" (1993).

"Baby Boy"

Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug use

Starring: Tyrese Gibson, Taraji P. Henson, Omar Gooding, A.J.Johnson, Ving Rhames, Snoop Dogg

Director: John Singleton

Critic's call:



But "Baby Boy," the third in Singleton's 'hood trilogy, is as misguided as its title character, Jody (Tyrese Gibson) and Jody's sullen best friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding, younger brother of Cuba) -- the yin and yang of sleazy commerce. Coached by his mom (A. J. Johnson) in seductive salesmanship, Jody develops a flair for selling (stolen) women's clothes out of a car trunk.

Sweetpea, on the other hand, is no more seductive as a salesman than as a lover -- also by contrast to Jody, whose past seductions have landed him in present trouble with girlfriends Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass).

Yvette has a nose for sexual news: She can tell if he's been unfaithful by smelling him. Since his infidelities are regular, so are their obscenity-filled screaming matches on the motel balcony where she (and their son) lives -- and the wild kiss-and-make-up sex with which the fights always conclude. When Jody finally resolves to be faithful, Yvette discovers a pack of Trojans in the back seat and it's Domestic World War III again.

Meanwhile, Oedipus wrecks Jody via big Mel (Ving Rhames), his mama's ex-con boyfriend, who is not amused by Jody's jivey curfew talk. The pecking order among these black men is evidently determined by the size and number of their tattoos: Mel wins, hands down, and gets a big laugh from the audience for the scene in which he makes breakfast in a breathtakingly bare-ass state of undress.

The main issue? Jealousy. Everybody suffers pathologically from it. Jealousy, not love, makes this South Central L.A. world go 'round.

"I lie to you 'cause I care about your feelings!" Jody tells Yvette, by way of explaining his dubious conduct. These black males' values are blackmail values -- articulated by insufferable men and accepted by doormat women like Yvette, who also stupidly accepts collect calls from jailbird Rodney (Snoop Dogg -- real name, FYI, Calvin Broadus), yet another character for people to be jealous about in the subplot.

Tyrese Gibson, in his first major film role, is quite adequate, considering his inadequate credentials as model, singer and MTV disc jockey. He doesn't seem to mind being the openly admitted second choice of director Singleton, who planned the film and the part for Tupac Shakur, prematurely deceased.

Ving ("Pulp Fiction") Rhames as Mel is very good, particularly in a nasty explosion against Jody that Mama tries unsuccessfully to referee. That violence is fisticuffs, and "Baby Boy" deserves credit -- if nothing else -- for the absence of gunplay, except two weird shooting scenes that might be real or might be fantasy.

Jody is a lover, not a fighter. Which is good. But the natives (in the form of the audience) are restless for a fight. There's loud applause when Rodney gets shot, and loud jeers for Jody's angst about it. The natives (including me) are even more restless during the interminable length of the denouement.

Nobody seems to mind the incredibly raunchy language -- every other word an "F" one.

Singleton says he's giving us "the soul of a black man -- it may be dysfunctional, but it's real. I'm not celebrating something that is not reality; I'm [giving] voice to the many young black men who have yet to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood. It's about a generation of young black men who haven't grown up. I'm not putting a good or bad judgment on it."

That voice is an antisocial, racially/racistly stereotypical one. And that rationale is screamingly disingenuous. Singleton's rendering of Jody's story as fun, cool and glitzy is a plenty positive de facto judgment in itself.

But who am I to judge? I've been a veritable William Kunstler in defending "Bonnie and Clyde" against similar charges for 34 years. But among many qualitative differences between the two pictures is this big one: In the finale of "Bonnie and Clyde," the couple are riddled (slo-mo beautifully) with bullets. However much they've been romanticized, they end up as doornail-dead as they deserve. In "Baby Boy," things work out fine: BB's duplicity and thievery are rewarded with a happy-ever-after ending.

Bottom line: This is an oversexed black chick-flick soap opera -- no dumber than any white one, but no smarter, either.

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