What’s Good on Netflix: Baby Boy

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Dir. John Singelton, Wri. John Singelton Prod. Dwight Williams, John Singelton, Sabrina Grey 

Starring: Tyrese Gibson, Taraji P. Henson, Ving Rhames, A.J. Johnson, Omar Gooding, Snoop Dogg

In the current climate of Hollywoodfilm, the push for more films about black life is becoming stronger. With Dear White People and Selma, in 2014 and the releases of Belle, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniel’s the Butler and 12 years of Slave, in 2013 black life—meaning life lived by blacks—is scratching a place of relevance in major media (being that all of them were independent films) Which brings me to Baby Boy, written and directed by John Singleton. A lot of black folks know this movie. We quote it, you’ll probably hear a rapper quote it, Taraji P. Henson and Tyrese Gibson reprised their roles for a skit at the BET awards in 2009 and the network continues to play the movie to this day. It is a cultural classic. But I’m not campaigning for Baby Boy because it’s a “black film” or that it’s a cultural classic, (well maybe a little bit) or that I can quote the movie front to back (and discovered one of my favorite Marvin Gaye songs from watching it) but for the fact that Baby Boy was of the few major motion pictures depicting lives lived by black people without it being a period piece, framed by an historical event (like Fruitvale Station), or a biopic in the last 15 years, says something.  Mainly, that a film about black people can be made, and that it can be produced by a major production company.

Baby Boy tells the story of Jody (Tyrese Gibson), a 20 year old ex con who refuses to grow up. He’s the father of two kids, from two different women who lives with his own mother, has no job, and seemingly has no future other than one waiting for him if he doesn’t get it together: prison or death. Jody’s current story starts off with him and his girlfriend, Yvette (Tarji P. Henson) getting finished at a health clinic; Yvette has had an abortion. From here, Jody tries to console her at home but is unable, so he leaves, (takes Yvette’s car) and visit’s his other baby’s mother and his other child. It doesn’t seem too bad for Jody. His life is manageable, until Melvin (Ving Rhames), Jody’s mom’s new boyfriend arrives. His existence threatens Jody’s comfortably, and soon Jody’s life becomes complicated when he is forced to be responsible.  Singleton does what few black filmmakers do, or white ones for that matter, when making films about black life. He situates the film in a crisis. Jody falls under the category of a baby (based on a concept about racism introduced in the beginning of the film). One major difference between Baby Boy and movies like Selma, 12 Years, The Butler, or even Tyler Perry’s works, is that Baby Boy does not focus on being black (“black”) but on development. In the interview at Loyola Merriment University, Singleton shares what he has learned from director Steven Spielberg. Both from watching his films and knowing him. “I learned basically to direct on theme. To really know the theme of the story that you’re telling, and to try to find a way in which to tell the story in the most cinematic way possible. To make the audience an active participant in viewing the film, instead of just doing it in what I say is the “cut-cut-cut” manner. You have the audience actually follow the character within the frame, and just really try to find ways to evoke some emotion out of an audience.”

Even though the opening monologues by Jody, paraphrasing the psychiatrist about racism’s effects on black men, the film isn’t about racism. Baby Boy attempts to depict being young, frustrated, and afraid to grow up, as well as the fear of being under constant pressure to perform. This last part is applicable of most of the film’s characters. While Singleton uses techniques of flashbacks, hallucinations, and dreams to heighten Jody’s fear of amounting to nothing, his fear of being like the mirror of image of his idol, Tupac Shakur (a mural panting of him is on Jody’s bedroom wall). Singleton’s use of low-key lighting, editing, and framing of his subjects, not only highlights Jody’s struggles but also those around him. The film’s lighting specifically, and the cameras attention to other characters implies some impending doom and fear of the unknown. Character’s shadows are all over in the movie, making them seem on the edge.

In one scene that speaks to this Melvin (an ex con himself) explains the slang term “Gunz and Butter” to Jody and Sweetpea (Omar Gooding). Jody vents to Sweetpea in his room, while Melvin, half lurks around the house, shaving his head, listening. Jody makes a halfhearted threat, and Melvin answers. A lesson begins when Melvin walks into the room and starts with “ You know what the problem about you little niggas is? You think you know everything about the damn world, and you don’t know shit.” Rhames’ performance, shot in a low angle, combined with the lighting, brings a tension that feels closer to a thriller. When he enters the room, the blinds cut him up and casts his shadow on the wall, making him more threatening, further enticing Jody to react, while tapering his anger. “There’s two types of niggas in this world”, he says. “There’s niggas with Gunz, and niggas with Butter.” He explains: “Gunz” are valuable and profitable things that one can make a life with, while “Butter” are material things that hold no weight. However uninvited the advice is, it is needed, for the one thing Jody lacks is structure, as well as a male role model over the age of 30. When looking at Jody, Sweetpea, Rodney (Yvette’s first love played by Snoop Dogg) and even the Mexican kids Jody hangs with, or the gang of kids who jump Jody, it is apparent that for young men (and also the women these characters interact with) to mature, a stable environment and social structure–one that does not dehumanize, nor manufacture replicas of the patriarchal order, but provides support for their efforts as human beings, as citizens– is vital. And without this, they must depend on themselves.

In the past year and half, Singleton has criticized Hollywood liberals for their pushing of “product” centered, light, portrayals of black, their lack in initiative in creating jobs for blacks on films depicting black lives, and the attempt to have black narratives conform to aesthetically pleasing,  Hollywood conventions. Baby Boy is one of the few examples of attempting to make a film dealing with blacks by black standards of filmmaking—within Hollywood. It provides a platform for depicting black lives on screen, seeing as black lives on a major screen are usually contextualized by historical events, forever linking them to repetitive forms of storytelling (period, melodrama, gangster, biopic, romantic comedy)  instead of an expansion into diverse territory. 

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