"For me, this movie is like watching the soul of a black man on screen," says John Singleton. "It may be dysfunctional, but it's real. I'm not celebrating something that is not reality; I'm just being honest to a story that I'm familiar with. "
Adds Ving Rhames, who plays reformed convict Melvin, "this movie is like Unforgiven-no one is wearing a halo on his head. Everyone in this movie is human. They've become who they've become due to circumstances, situations, their environments and their relationships. "
Baby Boy gives voice to the many young black men who have yet to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood while at the same time illustrating what single mothers go through attempting to raise young men on their own. "This movie is about a generation of young black men who haven't grown up," says Singleton. "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 are baby boys. "
"I like the fact that John basically says, 'look, this is what happens, what has happened, what is still going to happen in our communities if we as black men don't take control of the black family unit,'" says Rhames.
Though it addresses similar issues, Singleton stresses that Baby Boy is a companion piece, not a sequel, to Boyz N the Hood.
"This movie is the third of what I call my 'hood trilogy,'" explains the director. "The first was Boyz N the Hood, the second was Poetic Justice and the third is Baby Boy. Baby Boy is set in South Central L. A. and is based on characters that I know about. "
Despite the film's specific locale, Singleton points to the universality of his characters. "Even if you haven't lived the lifestyle of these characters," he says, "we all know people like them. "
For Baby Boy, Singleton assembled a cast of virtual unknowns, including singer and MTV VJ Tyrese Gibson, actresses Taraji P. Henson and Tamara LaSeon Bass, and newcomer Omar Gooding. "There's nothing like working with new talent," explains Singleton of his fondness for working with unseasoned actors. "It allows me to really influence them as artists. They don't come into the readings with any preconceived notions about who they think their characters are or why they shouldn't do certain things. "
Singleton knew he had to find just the right actor to play the character of Jody. A 20-year-old man-child, Jody has two babies by different women yet still lives with his mother and her O. G. boyfriend. The majority of his waking moments Jody spends in his room, losing himself in a world of remote-control lowrider model cars.
After Singleton's original choice, Tupac Shakur, who starred in Poetic Justice, was tragically killed, Singleton put the Baby Boy script on the shelf. "I thought there was no way I could find somebody to give the heart and soul of what I wanted the character to be," explains Singleton. "And then came Tyrese. "
"John had been sitting on the script for Baby Boy for a while," recalls Tyrese. "He came to me about this movie a long time ago, but I was real intimidated with the whole acting thing. " Then he read the script.
"It was addictive. I couldn't put it down. I just embraced the character. "
Tyrese remembers vividly the night before his audition for Singleton. "John left me a message on my answering machine. He went through the whole list of actors and actresses that have come his way and have gone on to be successful after they did a film with him. That meant so much to me. "
Undertaking his first major film role was a challenge for Tyrese. "The transition into acting was something that was very deep for me," says the young performer. "I just know the kind of pressure that I had. I couldn't take this lightly. "
Slightly humbled by his experience, Tyrese continues, "I just can't stress enough how much I respect this world of acting. I was blessed to have this situation happen for me. "
For Tyrese, as for many of the film's actors, the contemporary themes in Baby Boy ring true. "I based Jody off of Tyrese," he says. "Jody is like me in a lot of different ways. I don't have any kids, but I was born and raised here in the hood. I'm from Watts, so I didn't have to go soul searching. I didn't have to do any research. I've been around this all my life," he explains.
"Baby Boy is about something that goes on all around the world," he continues. "There's always gonna be a conflict, there's always gonna be egos. This is the way we go about dealing with the conflict in the hood. "
"Jody is me if I never went to college or never got out of the neighborhood," Singleton echoes. "He's my friends and cousins and millions of young black people. One day, my mother was watching me shoot a scene and she said, 'All you're doing is playing in the neighborhood again, except now you've got a camera to play with. '"
Ving Rhames, who grew up in Harlem on 126th Street, was also struck by the parallels between the film and his own life. "The whole gang-banging lifestyle is a vicious cycle. We have five, six generations that are born into that cycle. At some point, somebody has to say, 'no, it has to stop. ' I'm the first generation to break the cycle of poverty in the Rhames family. But I owe it to all of those generations ahead of me, for what they suffered and went through. "
Rhames, who worked with Singleton on 1997's Rosewood, has observed the young director's development over the years. "Singleton has really grown as a director. He's studied the human condition and the human experience. He studies film as an art form. He studies the art of directing. "
Rhames has strong opinions about the many commentaries the film makes on the black family unit and on the role that the black man plays within that unit. "With a lot of these problem kids, the father image is not there. The streets become their father. The O. G. becomes their father.
"I want to show the other side of the O. G. gang-banger," says Rhames. "I think that's the major difference in the character of Melvin-his vulnerability. "
As for what Tyrese refers to as the "baby mama drama" in the story-the fact that Jody has fathered two children by two different women and usually fails at the daily juggling act he must perform to stay involved in their lives-Rhames says: "I think it's one of our responsibilities as black men. If we don't get along with our babies' mamas, we still have a responsibility to that child. A lot of times, we run from that responsibility. I think this film really deals with what happens when a piece of the black family unit is taken away.
"When that happens, then the woman has to become the father and mother. It's very difficult for a woman to teach a boy how to become a man," says Rhames.
"The drama of maintaining a relationship with someone you have kids with, but don't live with, is definitely explored in the movie," adds Singleton.
Taraji P. Henson, who plays Yvette, feels that everyone will relate to the interpersonal entanglements in Baby Boy. "I think a lot of people will really identify with the different relationships in the movie, and learn from them. We've all been through it; we've all been through some type of situation where you know it's not healthy but you're in it anyway. Personally, it gives me closure to a part of my own life when I had to deal with a knucklehead like Jody. The script was so amazingly close to certain points in my life that I often had to put it down. It hit so close to home. "
Henson dubs Jody "a mama's boy" and feels the film delivers an important message. "You gotta grow up at some point. You gotta grow up and leave the nest and be a man. Mama's not gonna be there all the time. "
Tamara LaSeon Bass, who plays Peanut, Jody's second 'baby mama,' points out the positive flip side of this message. "I believe that Baby Boy is out there to empower men without degrading women. It doesn't set us up to make us look like we're just out to keep the men down. It's truly a movie that's out to lift the brothers up. "
Not everyone related so closely to the experience of the characters. Says A. J. Johnson, who plays Juanita, Jody's mother who looks young enough to be his sibling, "I had to work really hard at researching Juanita because, unfortunately or fortunately, I really didn't have anybody in my immediate family that was anywhere close to her.
"I was born in Fairhaven, NJ to a two-parent household," the actress continues. "My parents came to my softball games. I was head cheerleader, homecoming queen, the whole bit. So when I read the story, I felt like I really needed to research the life and the lifestyle. I wanted to do a good job. "
"When A. J. Johnson auditioned for the role of Juanita," says Singleton, "she rocked it. I knew I had found what I was looking for. In most films, we see the mom in a very traditional way. She's older, conservative, likes to cook and clean. Overall, we haven't seen the new young mom on screen, and A. J. brings that to life. "
According to Johnson, the story is indeed about young mothers-"babies having babies. It's also about relationship woes and a generation's problems-when you have two kids trying raise each other and their children, without a man in the household. "
But it's also about positive images of black relationships, the actress stresses. "We haven't really seen strong healthy black relationships on film in a long time, if ever, and there's a really good one in this story. I don't think John's trying to make a point by it. I think he's just trying to show what black love can be like when it's really, really good and it's really, really strong.
"There's a lot of dysfunction," the actress adds about the relationships in the movie, "but there's also a lot of love. "
Omar Gooding, who plays Jody's hot-tempered friend, Sweetpea, is the younger brother of Academy Award® winner Cuba Gooding Jr. , who turned in a stunning early performance in Singleton's Boyz. The addition of Omar to the cast was a conscious decision. "Omar is going to be as big as his brother," says Singleton. "They're both superb actors that bring their own nuances to a character. "
Gooding, who worked with Tyrese on an episode of "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" when they were just teens, recalls his first meeting with Singleton ten years ago. "I originally met him on the set when Cuba was doing Boyz, and then I would see him from time to time. One day last year he called me and said, 'Do you want to read for a part?' I was like, with it. "
Although the film roils with conflict and strife, in Gooding's view, it ultimately ends on a note that bodes well for the futures of the characters. "I think if you saw a sequel to this film, it would show Sweetpea on the right foot. It would show Jody taking care of his responsibilities as a man, not running around like a little baby boy. It would show the relationship between a good black man and a good black woman. "
Legendary rapper Snoop Doggy dogg stars as the pivotal character of Rodney in his first movie for John Singleton. "Snoop is humble and gracious. He treats everybody the way he wants to be treated. He is what he is to the public's eye, but I know him in another light," says Tyrese. "Snoop's shown me that if you lay back and be humble and just real content with who you truly are, then no level of success will ever affect that. "
A police helicopter circles over Vernon Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. Knotted orange trees in backyards glisten with all the serenity that South Central Los Angeles can muster. It's a place that some people call home; others know it more intimately as "the hood. " South Central Los Angeles is inner-city America at its finest, and the site of this unwavering yet cautionary urban anecdote about the extended African-American family and the often devastating effect violence can have on it.
After spending several months shooting Shaft in New York City, John Singleton was ready to return to the Southern California neighborhood he knows best. Shooting for Baby Boy took place exclusively on location in South Central at such well known locations as the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, the Crenshaw Car Wash, Liquor Bank, Kenneth Hahn Park, and along Martin Luther King Blvd.
As important as the locations in establishing the right attitude for the movie was the music. The Universal Records soundtrack, a mix of hip-hop and R&B that hits stores June 12, is headlined by Snoop Dogg and Tyrese's funk-infused lead single, "Just a Baby Boy. " All of the songs from the Baby Boy soundtrack appear in the film. Singleton, who also serves as executive producer of the soundtrack, worked closely with the label in putting it together.
For Singleton and star Tyrese, shooting in South Central was a homecoming of sorts. "It felt really good shooting in areas that I grew up in. Every location you see in this movie has some bearing on my life," Singleton says proudly.
"I don't want to say that it's been painful to do this movie, but it sure brought back memories," adds Tyrese.
Scattered among the debris of Singleton's gritty South Central landscape, there are answers to be found. "The answer is Jody's acceptance of being a young adult, and just being able to say that his mama is gonna live her life and he's gonna live his. He's just gonna go ahead and do his thing," says Tyrese. "Eventually you gotta accept the fact that you're an individual. "
The young performer hopes audiences will respond to Jody's transformation over the course of the film. "When people go to the movie theater and see this, and see that my life experiences can change, they'll change. They'll accept independent happiness. "
Baby Boy succeeds at catching the intimate moments between black men and women that are rarely visible on screen and introduces a new kind of coming-of-age hero that just might have something to teach the world.
This movie ought to be a wake-up call to black fathers," says Ving Rhames. "We're not there with our children, and we need to be. "
In essence, John Singleton views Baby Boy as a film rendition of the late Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," taking a look at a lost generation of young black men and searching their souls in an effort to find out what makes them tick.
Singleton views Jody and his ilk "as young lions on the Serengeti, except they're going around the Crenshaw Mall, checking out the 16-year-old girls. " While making desperate attempts to define themselves, they are forced to protect themselves in a white-washed world that views them as public enemy #1. Their women have bought into this notion, too.
"In the hood, you're still a child until you've amassed a rep or a record, then you're a man," says Singleton. "I'm not putting a good or bad judgment on it. It's the way it is. We just try to survive. "