john singleton's debut film, boyz N The Hood, gave him a pair of unique distinctions. He's the youngest director ever nominated for an Academy Award and remains the only African American to be nominated as best director.Boyz was a didactic slice of life; Singleton got nominated because the thesis of Boyz is that the 'hood needs more family values. His post-Boyz career, now a decade and six films long, makes Boyz look even better in retrospect and also highlights that film's weaknesses: the preacherly earnestness and Singleton's issues with women, which are about two steps removed from those of General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
The thesis of his new release, Baby Boy, is that black men in America have trouble becoming mature adults because of the culture that oppresses them. As a result, if you go by this film, black women coddle them and tolerate almost any kind of impropriety while at the same time telling them to grow up and "be a man."
Baby Boy features some very striking performances, notably by rapper Tyrese Gibson as Jody, the baby boy of the title, who still lives at home with his mama despite having two children by two different women, and by Snoop Dogg as his ex-con rival for the affections of Kim (Angell Conwell), the mother of his son. In earlier films, Singleton had good luck with rappers Ice Cube in Boyz and Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice.
Baby Boy's crisis comes when Jody's mother gets a new boyfriend, an ex-con turned businessman named Melvin (Ving Rhames), whose posturing seems old-school to Jody and his best friend, Sweet Pea (Omar Godding), but whose lethal reflexes have not been dulled by respectability.
Baby Boy suffers from Singleton's principal weakness: he can construct scenes but has trouble building narrative. About the third time Jody and Kim go through their "I hate you," "You ain't shit," "Fuck you" scene, you're thinking that these are people who really need to reconsider their options.
Singleton rarely falls to Spike Lee's erratic lows, but he can't match Lee's dizzying highs either. Singleton has skills. He doesn't have game.
baby boy written, directed and produced by John Singleton, with Tyrese Gibson, Ving Rhames, Angell Conwell and Snoop Dogg. 129 minutes. A New Deal production. A Columbia Pictures release. Opens Friday (June 29). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 96. Rating: NNN