With his debut feature, Boyz N the Hood, director and writer John Singleton became both the youngest individual and the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. That searing portrayal of inner-city life of three black youths still stands as one of the most influential films to come out of the 90’s cinema and along with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is one of the definitive pieces of urban cinema. It would take ten years for John Singleton to write, direct, and produce another film with the same passion and power as Boyz N the Hood, and while 2001’s Baby Boy was not as much the critical darling as his debut feature, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t stand the test of time a decade later as an incredibly powerful look at a very particular aspect of urban life.

Baby Boy is an examination of the way in which black men in the inner cities are stuck in a continued state of arrested development emotionally and intellectually. The basic thesis of the film is that most black men living in areas like Compton or Crenshaw are in fact still boys, still children and are not prepared to take on the full responsibility of being adults. This isn’t their fault but a product of the legacy of institutional racism and the society in which these black men are brought up. Perhaps this is why this film wasn’t as well received as Singleton’s earlier effort which was focused on a more tangible concept of  poverty, violence, and escaping the ghetto. This film is focused on more abstract ideas and a more psychological concept. I was extremely intrigued by it.

Baby Boy explores this theme through its main character, Jody (R & B star Tyrese Gibson). Jody is presented as your typical urban youth. He lives at home with his mother and has children by two different women, although he lavishes the most affection on Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), the mother of his first child. He is unemployed and not particularly mature or stable. He cheats on both his baby-mamas. His idea of getting a real job is to sell stolen dresses to women at beauty parlors. His best friend is Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding), a borderline sociopath who also has kids. Jody is concerned that his own mother plans on kicking him out of her house because she has started seeing a new man, Melvin (Ving Rhames). Things become even more complicated when Yvette’s old boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg) gets released from prison and wants to get back in her life.

I almost look at the characters of Jody and Sweet Pea as what would have happened had Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Dough Boy (Ice Cube) survived Boyz N the Hood and actually made it to adult hood. This film is an exploration of the characters who aren’t like Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and don’t have any real chance to ever make it out of the ghetto and must learn to live with the realities of life if they want any chance to survive. I would actually make the argument that this is a much darker film than Boyz N the Hood as no character gets out of the ghetto. There’s no Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) spouting out sage wisdom and saving anybody. Each character must live and die on his own. The closest this film has to a Furious character is Ving Rhames’ Melvin and even he is deeply, deeply flawed.

For someone who has made most of his career as an R & B singer, Tyrese did an absolutely fantastic job in this film as the lead role. This film essentially lives and dies based on how well Jody is played, and Tyrese really did the trick. Jody isn’t a particularly likeable guy most of the time and Tyrese manages to keep you consistently changing your mind about whether or not you even like the main character of the film and that’s not an easy task. Ving Rhames is fantastic as always as semi-reformed street thug Melvin and Omar Gooding (who I primarily knew as the odd-ball friend on Smart Guy) is terrifying as Sweet Pea. My only acting complaint is from Taraji P. Henson as Yvette. She just irritated the piss out of me because she was like some sort of strange ebonic stereotype rolled into living human form and I expect better from a John Singleton picture.

As you can tell, this post is much longer than my normal ones but that’s because this film left me with so much to think about, which is pretty much one of the highest praises that I can give to a piece of fiction. It is an endlessly compelling study of the relationship that black men have with the women in their lives and at the same time the way in which black men mature and grow in a society that has abandoned them. If you have any interest in dramatic fiction that examines the more psychological aspects of society, then you really need to give this a go. This film is much slower and more character based than Boyz N the Hood which is one of the primary reasons why it has failed to find a significant audience. But after watching it for the first time since it came out ten years ago, I instantly fell back in love with this picture and there are very few types of people that I couldn’t find myself recommending it to.

Final Score: A