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aby Boy" opens with the image of Jody, its 20-year-old protagonist, sleeping in his mother's womb as a voice-over explains the film's title and its central theme. John Singleton's new coming-of-age melodrama hypothesizes that young black men are infantilized by a society that allows them little room to grow. In support of this thesis, the narrator notes that a typical African-American man growing up in a neighborhood like South Central Los Angeles, where this film is set, refers to his girlfriend as mama, his friends as his boys and his home as his crib.
But as it goes on to offer a powerful, compassionate and tough-minded critique of contemporary black manhood -- and implicitly of some deeply held American assumptions about race, family and masculinity -- the film disarms any facile analysis or easy judgment of its characters. After the opening montage, we see Jody (played by Tyrese Gibson) eating candy as he waits for his girlfriend outside an abortion clinic. In one of his first lines, he refers to himself as daddy. In spite of his evident selfishness and irresponsibility -- he is the father of a son and a daughter, each of whom has a different mother -- Jody has strong paternal impulses and a desire to do the right thing, to step up and be a man.
But what, Mr. Singleton asks, does it mean to be a man? As applied to young African-Americans, the question tends to be wrapped up in pop-culture posing -- the thugs, players and gangsters of much recent hip-hop -- or pop-social science generalizations about the pathologies of ghetto life and the shortage of male role models.
"Baby Boy" earns credibility for its insights by moving beyond image and rhetoric and quickly establishing Jody, his friends, lovers and family members as complex, striving, fallible human beings. This sounds of course like an obvious choice to make, but one has only to reflect on the crude cartoons of brutality and saintliness that continue to populate so many movies about black men, including Mr. Singleton's hapless and reactionary remake of "Shaft," to see that it is not always an easy or a welcome choice in the supposedly liberal environment of Hollywood.
In 1991, with his first feature, "Boyz N the Hood," Mr. Singleton brought some of the social consciousness and emotional fullness of 1930's Warner Brothers gangster melodramas into the modern world of gangs, drive-by shootings and splintered families. Ten years later the streets of South Central appear a little more prosperous and a bit less dangerous, but the legacy of violence and neglect still shadows the lives of its citizens.
Jody, who lives with his mother, Juanita (A. J. Johnson), has some unspecified trouble with the law in his past. His mother's new boyfriend, Melvin (Ving Rhames), is an ex- convict and "original gangster" who now owns his own landscaping business. And Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), the mother of Jody's son, who works for a phone company and owns the late-model luxury car Jody drives, accepts collect calls from an old flame named Rodney (Snoop Dogg), who has spent the last five years in prison.
But while his environment poses some specific obstacles to his maturation, Jody's basic predicament is hardly unique. The feckless narcissism of young white men, after all, is an inexhaustible (if frequently tiresome) subject for ambitious, allegedly independent filmmakers. What distinguishes "Baby Boy," and makes it an important film as well as an entertaining one, is its sympathetic distance from Jody's perspective.
"This is grown folks' music," says Melvin as he and Juanita sway to the sweet, world-weary sounds of Marvin Gaye. And "Baby Boy," though it has enough street smarts and good humor to attract a young audience, is essentially a grown-up movie, compassionate and attentive, but disinclined to pander or to coddle. Though its focus is Jody's struggle to grow up, the picture makes ample room for the women in his life to assert themselves. The characters of Juanita and Yvette are as richly written and solidly acted as Jody's.
Jody's story is told with so much heart -- and his character is acted with such a winning combination of playfulness, vulnerability and sexual dynamism by Mr. Gibson -- that you can forgive the occasionally incoherent storytelling, the overwrought moments and the haphazard, unconvincing excursions into dream and fantasy. Though it runs for more than two hours, the picture sometimes feels as though it had been chopped into its current form from a longer, more episodic composition.
Several times important incidents are referred to that have not taken place on screen. At one point Jody confronts Melvin with the news that he has sought out the older man's estranged son, and the audience is likely to be as baffled as Melvin at the news. Later, after Jody has rejected the advances of one of Yvette's co-workers, Yvette finds a half-empty package of condoms in her car. Jody's confession of frequent infidelity comes out of the blue, and we have the feeling that some crucial information about him has been left on the cutting room floor. After a few early scenes Peanut (Tamara Bass), the mother of Jody's younger child, all but vanishes, which has the perhaps inadvertent effect of letting him off the hook.
Mr. Singleton, who is 33, is a child of the hip-hop era, and the language and rhythms of the music -- profane and violent at times, but also full of wit and warmth -- flow through the movie. At the same time, though, Mr. Singleton debunks the blustering machismo projected by so many rappers, including Snoop Dogg, whose performance is sly, menacing and disarmingly funny. When Jody and his friend Sweetpea (Omar Gooding) try to adopt thuggish poses, they look like fools. But their foolishness -- and in particular the gentleness and aversion to violence that might mark Jody as a punk or a coward -- is what saves them.
"I do what I do, but I'm good," Jody says to Yvette, and while Mr. Singleton does not excuse or ignore the hurtful things Jody does, he also acknowledges, and ultimately rewards, his decency. A climactic scene between Jody and Melvin, whose relationship has been defined by jealousy and resentment, is played out in Jody's bedroom under a wall-size painting of Tupac Shakur, the hip- hop star who personified some of the paradoxes this movie explores.
In his music Shakur, who was murdered in 1996, could be both a swaggering thug and a sensitive, wounded manchild, and Mr. Singleton initially conceived the role of Jody with him in mind. His image, hovering behind Jody and Melvin, is a haunting reminder of what is at stake for Jody.
"Baby Boy" is rated R. It has several explciit sex scenes, a lot of profanity, and a few moments of brutal violence.
Written, produced and directed by John Singleton; director of photography, Charles E. Mills; edited by Bruce Cannon; music by David Arnold; production designer, Keith Brian Burns; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 129 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Tyrese Gibson (Jody), Omar Gooding (Sweetpea), A. J. Johnson (Juanita), Taraji P. Henson (Yvette), Snoop Dogg (Rodney), Tamara Bass (Peanut) and Ving Rhames (Melvin).