John Singleton’s compassionate legacy of a lost generation
Marvin Gaye’s lyric “It’s too late for you to cry” sounds like a prediction of the heartlessness shown by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and all the other mayors who make excuses for the urban violence decimating black males. It was Los Angeles filmmaker John Singleton (1968–2019) who intuitively dramatized Gaye’s caution and grief in Baby Boy, his best film, now of 20-year vintage.
No movie is ahead of its time, only ahead of popular acceptance. Baby Boy is a melodramatic telling of twentysomething Jody (wiry Tyrese Gibson) facing the pressures of young adulthood, unmarried multiple fatherhood, and tricky self-esteem in gang-war L.A. Probing the state of black social, sexual, and racial identity as no other film has, Singleton’s challenge to the machismo of hip-hop culture resulted in a box-office flop. It opened the same day as Spielberg’s A.I. and in its way is equally auspicious. Now, Singleton’s compassionate view of Jody’s dilemma illuminates the story behind all the headlines from Trayvon Martin on.
Singleton never asked for tears or trendy social reform but insisted on the honesty that politicians and the media shunt aside in favor of platitudes. Baby Boy remarkably withholds platitudes (an achievement well detailed by Travis Bean in Film Colossus).
From the opening, phantasmagoric image of Jody in the womb, Baby Boy forces startling, pro-life recognition. Gaye’s warning (a line in his seductive entreaty “Just to Keep You Satisfied”) is described to Jody as “grown folks’ music.” It represents the complex realization of life that most youth-oriented black pop culture has denied. (A joint-smoking scene contains a brief shot of Dr. Dre’s 1993 album The Chronic, the first hip-hop record that truly deserves to be called genocidal.)
Maturity rushes upon Jody as he confronts the sexual independence of his single mother, Miss Juanita, who is only twice his age (a one-of-a-kind characterization by A. J. Johnson). Meanwhile, his own sexual activity comes into issue — juggling responsibilities with his two baby mamas (Tamara LaSeon Bass’s Peanut and Taraji P. Henson’s Yvette).
Jody’s fourth antagonist is Melvin (Ving Rhames), his mother’s new lover, an ex-con whose hypermasculine image was missing from Jody’s life. Melvin tests the pop concept of black manhood represented by the wall-sized Tupac Shakur painting that dominates Jody’s bedroom wall. Tupac’s surreal image is more expressive than Jody’s in-the-womb quote of psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, whose theories on white supremacy once inspired Public Enemy, though they don’t help youths like Jody navigate everyday practicalities.
Jody can’t live up to the model of Tupac, Welsing, or Melvin (the latter is a problematic figure who reconstructed his life with some scary imperfections). He is torn between his own post-adolescent sensitivity and the swagger of his best friend, Sweetpea (Omar Gooding, in another original characterization), caught in his own struggle between street machismo and spiritual quandary.
The mention of Lori Lightfoot above wasn’t just for condemnation. Lightfoot’s seeming indifference to the plight of urban black America points up the importance of Baby Boy’s themes. This is the rare movie to deal with the matriarchy that dominates black American culture. That cultural given is sympathetically portrayed in Jody and Yvette’s screaming matches, in which their immature egos compete with their biological urges. Singleton understands the power struggle of young people who feel powerless. It is staggering when Jody and Sweetpea try to prove manhood through jaw-cracking violence, retaliating for the theft of Jody’s bicycle by a gang of baby thugs in Cholo plaid shirts. Realizing their own lack of paternal affect, they are haunted by the use of force — especially in Jody’s nightmares about his own death and in a confrontation where Melvin subdues Jody, threatening unspeakable jailhouse brutality.
Commentator Jason Whitlock recently denounced “the reshaping of family structure being led by Hollywood, the music industry, Black Lives Matter, corporate media, and academia . . . a culture programmed to celebrate degeneracy and the slaughter of black men in gang violence.” But Singleton already expressed those fears in this tale about the cyclical ruin of broken families — and of communities lacking religious unity, which is highlighted when Sweetpea prays on one knee: “For all the sins we’ll have in the future. If You can’t show us the way, forgive us for being lost.”
Made ten years after Singleton’s debut Boyz N the Hood, which was a box-office hit, Baby Boy completed his Generation Lost diptych. It’s his “root causes” near-masterpiece, unabashed about social failure: the black man-child’s arrested adolescence.
That’s also the subject of the unnervingly honest Spike Jonze music video What’s Up Fatlip, where rapper Derrick Lemel Stewart, “Fatlip” of The Pharcyde, confesses his messed-up life and delayed maturity, often symbolized by dressing as a clown or sitting in a kids’ bounce house. Fatlip raps, “Who am I kiddin’, who am I foolin’?” which is the poignant point of Baby Boy’s emotional candor.
Singleton created a richer portrayal of black American life than any Spike Lee has ever imagined. His other features Poetic Justice, Higher Education, Rosewood, and Four Brothers worked through topical social issues, but Baby Boy comes the closest to an existential inquiry. I encountered Singleton several times in mutual respect but regret never having the chance to discuss this particular art effort, which was made against the odds of Hollywood commercial tactics and industry sanctimony that stifles woke filmmakers.
Baby Boy is Singleton’s most mature and hopeful film, a warning about our current crisis.