Dir: John Singleton. US. 2001. 130 mins.

The innersoul of a young, immature black man is placed under scrutiny in JohnSingleton's Baby Boy, a companion piece but not a sequel, to his breakthrough film,Boyz N' The Hood,which exactly ten years ago made a splash in the film world. Revisiting thesame tough neighborhood of that 1991 film, and offering a similarly unflinchinglook at the devastating impact of violence on black families, Baby Boy is not as effective, resonant, ortouching as Singleton's terrifically confident debut. Nonetheless, despitestructural and other deficiencies, Singleton's return to small-scale andintimate fare, after last year's stylishly cartoonish Shaft, is more than welcome. Featuring animpressive debut performance from R&B heartthrob and MTV host, TyreseGibson, and graced by a strong turn from Omar Gooding (younger brother of Cuba,who was Boyz'breakthrough star), Baby Boy may not have the same cross-over appeal of the 1991 picture,but Columbia' serious summer fare should do reasonably well ascounter-programming in a season dominated by large-scale, special-effects eventmovies.

In 1991,Singleton became the youngest (23) -- and first black -- director to benominated for the Best Director Oscar, an achievement that catapulted him tothe forefront of the new African-American cinema, along with Spike Lee, hisrole model. Unfortunately, like Soderbergh and other directors who began onsuch an extreme high, Singleton didn't escape the fate of a sophomore jinx andhis next picture, Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson, was both an artistic and commercialfailure. And his next couple of movies, Higher Learning and Rosewood, were honorable efforts that didn't findtheir audience. In this respect, despite its flaws, Baby Boy is a return to form, a socially relevantmovie with an urgent message.

Like Singleton'sbetter films (Boyz, Rosewood) Baby Boy is a cautionary morality tale, a wake-upcall with a critical tone but also suggestive of a more hopeful remedy. Thefilm examines the problems and complexities of the average black family, asingle parent unit usually headed by women. Like Boyz, which began with an ominous title card,"one out of every 25 black Americans will die in his lifetime," thenew movie starts with a voice-over that provides a psychological theory of whyblack men are baby boys: "What does a black man call his mother' Mama. Andhow does he call his place of residence' A crib."

The protagonistis Jody (Gibson), a misguided, 20-year-old African American, who's streetwise,jobless, and utterly lost. Though he has fathered two children by twodifferent women, he still clings to his strong mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson),living in her home and needing the kind of care and attention that his ownbabies desperately need but are deprived of. For relaxation, Jody locks hisroom, losing himself in a world of remote-control low rider model cars, whichfurther enhances the yarn's poignantly accurate title.

Unable to strikea balance, or find a direction in a rootless life, Jody vacillates between histwo women, Yvette (Henson) and Peanut (Bass), while showing sexual interest inother young women as well. To make things worse, his buddy, Sweetpea (Gooding),is even more immature than he is. Shuffling in and out of prison, the volatileSweetpea seems to find trouble in every encounter he has.

Structured as anemotional journey, filled with violence, romance, and pain, Baby Boy is aclassic coming-of-age tale, except that its hero is not a teenager but a youngman. Indeed, the film gives voice to black men, who have yet to embrace theresponsibilities of adulthood, while at the same time showing the hardshipssingle mothers go through raising children on their own. Since they've allbeen raised by women, the young males go out of their way to display theirmacho side, but they really are mama's boys.

Baby Boy'sserio-comic tragedy is accentuated by the fact that Jody's mother is not onlyyoung (they look like siblings), but a sexually potent woman, who begins a newchapter in her life upon meeting Melvin (a splendid Rhames), a reformed O.G.(as in "Old Gangsta"). Tensions escalate to jealous rivalry andfights over Juanita's attentions, as soon as Melvin moves into the house andestablishes his rule. In one comic scene, Jody wakes up to find a nude Melvin(shown from the back) cooking breakfast for Juanita after a night of loudpassionate lovemaking.

Singletonwrote the script several years ago for Tupac Shakur (who starred in PoeticJustice), but after thelatter was tragically killed, he shelved the story. In Baby Boy, a huge poster of Shakur hangs over Jody'sbed, a reminder to the hero -- and the audience -- of the devastating fate of atalented African-American who's become emblematic of a lost and doomed generation.Baby Boy provides awarning: This is what's going to happen in the black community if black mendon't take control of the family unit.

As a cautionarytale, Baby Boy is different from both Boyz N' The Hood and Poetic Justice, movies that comprise Singleton's"hood trilogy." In Boyz, Tre's divorced mom hands her 10-year-old son to her ex, FuriousStyles (Lawrence Fishburne), who she believes can teach Tre survival skills, inother words, how to be a man. A former military, who now works in a local homemortgage firm, Styles serves as a role model in a community in which mostfathers are missing. In that film's preachiest scene, Styles told his son, ifblacks are brothers, why are they killing one another' Boyz insisted on the necessity of male authority,suggesting that only strong fathers can keep their boys out of the streets --and violent death.