A decade ago John Singleton, straight from film school, made an auspicious feature debut with the harrowing “Boyz ‘N the Hood.” The picture not only made a star of Cuba Gooding, Jr. and marked Singleton as a director to watch, but was instrumental in inaugurating a whole cycle of “hood” movies, almost none of which approached its honesty and intensity. Now, after making such pictures as “Rosewood” and “Shaft” in the intervening years, Singleton has returned to the South Central streets of Los Angeles and made “Baby Boy,” starring music phenomenon Tyrese Gibson and featuring Gooding’s brother Omar.
“This is my companion piece to my earlier work,” Singleton said during a recent interview in Dallas. “If I was just starting out right now, if I was just getting out of USC right now, this is the film I would be making. That was my attitude–I’m going to try to do something totally different, but keep the attitude that I just got out of film school, because I still think of myself as a student of film.”
Singleton had actually started writing “Baby Boy” years ago, not long after “Boyz.” But a variety of circumstances prevented him from turning the story about an irresponsible young man who’s fathered two kids by different girls while still living with his mother, but who eventually grows up and gains some maturity–“the dysfunctional rite of passage that black America has set for itself” is how the writer-director put it–into a finished film. One was the “glut” of pictures that copied “Boyz,” trying to match its financial success. “But none of them had the heart,” Singleton explained, and “there was a tremendous backlash against the ‘hood’ films.'” He recalled, almost wistfully, how the career he had imagined for himself evaporated. “I had always thought that I’d be like Woody Allen–Woody had Manhattan, and Spike [Lee] had Brooklyn, and I had South Central. And I was going to do a film a year in South Central. But my little niche had been appropriated, so I had to get as far from doing movies in the hood as possible.” After ten years, though, he felt the urge to make another picture in the place where he still lives and knows from the inside: “I needed to go back and have a homecoming,” he said. “I pulled together a lot of old friends,” including crew members from “Boyz,” “started making new friends, made some new family–that was really good for me.” The result is a film which tells a sobering story but also has bursts of what Singleton referred to as “ironic humor.” “It’s funny, but it’s tragic at the same time,” he said.
There had been another reason why the idea for “Baby Boy” remained on the shelf so long, though: when Singleton began writing it, it was as a vehicle for rapper Tupac Shakur, who’d starred in the director’s “Poetic Justice” (1993). The musician-turned-actor was excited at the prospect, but, Singleton remembered, “Two weeks later he was murdered, and I just stopped working on it. [I thought] there’s no one I can find who can be as soulful and show so much heart as this character, Jody, required. I felt that way until I ran into Tyrese.”
Tyrese Gibson, music star and popular MTV VJ, had been approached with movie scripts before–forty of them, he estimated–but, he said, “I didn’t care about acting, I wasn’t interested in being in Hollywood, and I’m still not. I’m just in it now. But I read the script and it really grabbed my heart, because Jody is Tyrese–I just don’t have any kids. That’s a side of Tyrese that I’ve put to rest. I used to think beneath my years, and now I think beyond my years. There was nothing about this role that was strange to me. Jody was in me, but I had put him to rest. And I had to wake him back up to do this movie, and once [John] hollered ‘Wrap,’ he went right back to sleep. And that’s what people will hopefully get from this movie when they see it, and that’s why I couldn’t miss out on being part of this story. People can identify with being irresponsible, see a mirror of yourself–and that’s when you change.”
Gibson fit Singleton’s desire to “go with an unknown cast” in the picture–“I wanted it to have a fresh, fresh look,” the writer-director explained–but the singer was thankful for the chance to participate despite his inexperience in film. “The beauty of the lifestyle that we both have,” Gibson said, “is that we’re creative people. I’m creative in my passion in my world, and [John’s] in his. And I’m just really happy that he gave me the opportunity to bring his passion to life. Other than that, John would have jumped on camera and done the movie himself because he wanted the story to be told. And I just felt blessed that he gave me an opportunity to do this film, because he put his career on the line, and I was just looking to make him proud,…because he didn’t have to open up the audition to newcomers. I didn’t get into the movie to do press, I didn’t get into the movie to be in Hollywood. I can care less. My whole thing is music. The focus for me was definitely to make [John] proud for giving me this huge opportunity.”
And the originally-intended Jody, Tupac Shakur, still appears in “Baby Boy,” in the form of a huge poster that hangs in Jody’s room and watches, brooding, over the proceedings. The dominance of his visage is intentional–“No image in this film is an accident,” Singleton said– and is more than just a homage to a departed friend. Tupac, the writer-director emphasized, “is our James Dean. He didn’t know whether he wanted to be a thug or a revolutionary, and so he basically spoke to the voice of our generation. His death had a profound effect on me.” And the legend on one of the most famous posters of him–“Live by the gun, die by the gun”–has a lot to do with the moral both Singleton and Gibson hope that viewers will take from “Baby Boy.”