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The Big Picture

A Difficult Coming of Age

John Singleton's new film, 'Baby Boy,' is a searing look at a lost generation of young black men. The director is trying to capture some intimate moments rarely visible on screen.

February 27, 2001|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

John Singleton is standing out on the sidewalk, admiring a row of palm trees that stretches down the block, out to the horizon. The moon is peeking through the palm fronds and, perhaps because film directors see things filtered through the gauzy eye of artistic intentions, the humble street just off Vernon Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, with its gnarled backyard orange trees, seems to glisten with all the serenity of picture-postcard Los Angeles.

"It looks just like Beverly Hills," Singleton says.

Back in his old neighborhood, the 33-year-old director is feeling expansive as he sets up the last shot of the night for "Baby Boy," which Sony Pictures will release June 29, almost 10 years to the day after "Boyz N the Hood," his celebrated debut film. At Singleton's side is Big Cat, a former Rolling 60s Crips O.G. (original gangster) who serves as the director's"gangologist," counseling lead actors Tyrese and Omar Gooding in the walk and talk of authentic gangbangers.

As someone who has just marked the first anniversary of release from his latest stretch in prison, Big Cat sees things with a little less picture-postcard glow. Looking up at the palm trees, he alertly points out a crime helicopter circling overhead. "I don't know, John," he says. "I think we're a long way from Beverly Hills."

If Singleton weren't so young, you'd call "Baby Boy" his comeback film. His last movie, "Shaft," was a commercial hit, but it got mixed reviews and was firmly under the control of producer Scott Rudin, who publicly feuded with Singleton, as did Samuel L. Jackson, the film's star. Before "Shaft," Singleton had made three personal films, all with black casts and subjects, but none had the overwhelming critical and commercial impact of "Boyz."

With this film, Singleton wanted to look inward, to make a movie that would capture the intimate moments between black men and women that are rarely visible on screen. He envisions "Baby Boy" as a coming-of-age story, much like "The Graduate" or "Saturday Night Fever" but with a black man as the hero of the story.

His hero is considerably different from "The Graduate's" Benjamin Braddock: Jody is a 20-year-old weed-smoking hustler who has two babies with different women but lives at home with his mother and her O.G. boyfriend, spending most of his time in his room, playing with remote-control lowrider model cars.

Singleton sees the movie as his version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," a soul-searching look at a lost generation of young black men.

"The hardest thing to do is shock black folk," he says one day. "But this movie is going to be strong." As he says that last word, he mimes a punch to the stomach.

"Somebody at the studio said this movie is misogynistic. I know the black bourgeoisie are going to hate it. But I'm not celebrating ignorance, like rappers bragging about not knowing how to read. I'm just being honest--I'm not wrapping things up in an easy package. For me, this movie is like watching the soul of a black man on screen. It may be dysfunctional, but it's real."

Having read the script and watched Singleton at work last month, I can safely say that "Baby Boy" will shock more than just black folk. In an era in which Hollywood has produced a steady stream of cozy, feel-good movies, "Baby Boy's" raw, unsettling portrait of violent young black men who've been raised by single mothers could provoke enough debate to knock Eminem off the op-ed pages for a while.

It's certainly a bracing departure from dramas like "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Family Man," in which black characters have largely been on hand, as critic Ernest Hardy put it, to play "spiritual mammy to white folk."

If any one moment captures the mood of "Baby Boy," it's a scene in which Jody has sex with his girlfriend Yvette. As they moan with passion, they growl at each other: "I love you, I hate you. I love you, I hate you. . . ."

One day Singleton shows me the movie's opening sequence, which displays Jody, naked except for his gang tattoos, curled up in a pool of fluid like a baby in a womb. "This is a movie about a generation of young black men who haven't grown up," he explains. "They've all been raised by women, so they're always trying to show how much of a man they are, when what they really are is baby boys."

Singleton sees Jody and his friends as young lions on the Serengeti, except "they're going around the Crenshaw Mall, checking out the 16-year-old girls. They're trying to define and defend their manhood at the same time, from their women, the white world and themselves. In their neighborhood, you're not a man until you're a killer. You look at me the wrong way--bam! I'm not putting a good or bad [judgment] on it. It's the way it is. We kill, we make babies, we try to survive."

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