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Baby Boy, a Timeless Warning

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Tyrese Gibson (right) and Omar Gooding in Baby Boy. (Sony Pictures/Trailer image via YouTube) 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

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