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Director and screenwriter John Singleton's recent Baby Boy, which was both loved and hated, arrived at a unique moment in our time. In areas of popular entertainment and even in supposedly serious criticism, the humanity of black people is under attack. It is a period of deep crisis in which nuanced discussion is difficult. Nothing about black Americans can be discussed in a vacuum and little that looks at things seriously can escape the past. The many thousands of bigoted denigrations that went unchallenged for so long can now be used as references to dismiss a work of art-especially if that work is critical of any manifestations in contemporary or traditional Afro-American culture.
When Singleton set out to take a critical look at those strutting young Los Angeles black men who father children by various women and make little or no effort to support them, he was stepping into what has long been a serious mess. Anyone who goes down into the darker ranges of the Afro-American world faces danger, since what one finds down there can so easily be placed within the dead world of the stereotype. In that world, characters exist only as lifeless puppets pulled into action for the perpetuation ofpoisonous myths about the unchanging essence of a purportedly inferior group.
We see the complexity of the troubles everywhere, with and without black cooperation. Images of black youth seen on MTV, BET, or VH1, as the most obvious examples, are not far removed from those D. W. Griffith used in Birth of a Nation, where Reconstruction Negroes were depicted as bullying, hedonistic buffoons ever ready to bloody somebody. This is the new minstrelsy. The neo-Sambo is sturdily placed in our contemporary popular iconography. He can be seen, for instance, mugging or scowling in Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug," where gold teeth, drop-down pants, and tasteless jewelry abound. Then there is the fast-tailed hussy, rolling her rump at the camera or challenging some anonymous man to satisfy her in Missy's latest. These videos are created primarily for the material enrichment of black entertainers, producers, and directors, not present-day whites, who would be run off the planet if they-like the creators of nineteenth-century minstrelsy-were responsible for the images, the ideas, and the content.
It is against this backdrop of dehumanization that a brave work such as Baby Boy must be assessed. On the surface, it seems no more than an exploitation of people who were struggling to find themselves, or had no interest in going beyond where they were, or seemed unconcerned about becoming anything more than what they already were. But what Singleton actually tried to do cannot easily be made light of, particularly since there are so few black films bent on probing serious subjects. That is because black characters, regardless of the color of the screenwriter, rarely exist for artistic purposes. They tend to fulfill some fantasy or some craven attempt to take advantage of the fact that black moviegoers constitute such a large percentage of ticket buyers. Such characters are just props, as the writer Clayton Riley once called them.
Singleton is after more than props. He questions the mores of his characters and shows young black men caught in ritual behavior that is about arrested development on one hand and bitter rage at their limitations on another. They listen to no one, make no own rules but follow unproductive conventions based in getting high, impregnating women, and pretending to be in control of adult or violent worlds that press them to the canvas at will. At one point, with a tragic depth one would find exceptional in any American film, a character prays that he and his buddy be shown the way but, if they cannot be given a direction, the young man asks God to "forgive us for being lost."
That sense of life gives the film its depth, its sense of tragedy, of violence, of murder, of rape, of passing on the bloody gauntlet of abuse, of girls who become mothers before they become women and struggle with sons who are males but not men. We see onetime teenage mothers trying to get their grown sons out of their houses and into lives where personal responsibility is normal, not rare. Singleton gives us men who once followed the dark tracks of the thug life but finally got themselves together. They find it almost impossible to explain to these young guys that they do not have to repeat a stupid cycle in which nothing is proved and little is learned-other than how dumb the whole hoodlum stroke was in the first place.
There is even a "Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" morality; it accepts the killing of a young, murderous monster as a harsh rite of passage. This makes the community a better place to be by permanently removing one more snake. Though the protagonist -who is traumatized immediately following the murder-is not haunted by the killing when we last see him, director John Ford taught us that one day the murder will return to the front of his brain and he will recall it as the tragic moment when he rose above where he began, when he learned the cost of living among armed young men who use real guns as if they were cap pistols.
Still, a tight focus on such people that did not include a more comprehensive picture of black Los Angeles was seen as having no value in certain quarters. A good number of well-to-do black people considered the film an insult and proof that, as one magazine editor said to me, "John Singleton, with all of his success and his new address among the Hollywood crew, doesn't know any more about those people now than anybody else. He is just as much an outsider. That is why the writer I assigned to do a piece about the film decided not to write anything after a screening. It was a waste of time on something as worthless as that."
Others thought the film was pornographic. They did not recognize that the erotic scenes-unlike sexual minstrelsy-reveal aspects of the psychological identities of the participants, making them much more than bodies performing intimate acts. The scenes can trick us into believing that as long as a guy from that background can erotically satisfy a gal he has mistreated, his transgressions will be forgiven. One unexpected scene takes place when the major character-who is a true hound-discovers, almost in the middle of the act, that he does not want to have sex with anyone other than the young woman who has paid her dues to win his faithfulness. Singleton even has a moment when a single mother is about to be raped but the presence of her protesting infant son elicits unexpected compassion from the rapist. Determined not to let his thug mask drop, he calls the child a dirty name and storms off.
Those are the kinds of things that make Baby Boy special. Its shortcomings begin in the beginning, when a discussion of black male behavior is heard in a voice-over. The words are from Francis Cress Welsing, an intellectual buffoon of the first order, whose color theories almost justify the term "reverse racism." Her thoughts, taken from the dubious Isis Papers, explain how black males can be infantilized by a racist society. This is pushed home by the image of the lead, pop singer and model Tyrese Gibson, fully grown but still in the womb. Some of the cutting seems clumsy and there is a secondary tale about a brother who was murdered that is never made clear. With a picture of Tupac Shakur overlooking the bedroom of the lead character, Singleton makes clear what the best of our black filmmakers have been saying for quite some time-those who model themselves on the thug life advocated by the Shakurs become dangerous not only to themselves but to everyone else. This is far beyond a racial point because it speaks to codes of living, which are always the subjects of comprehensive narrative art.
Baby Boy therefore stands tall in times like these and makes a very strong third part of the trilogy Singleton began with his first film, Boyz in the Hood (1991). In that first effort, Singleton went far beyond the skin-deep renditions of certain segments of black youth and their troubles on the street. Without its success, it is hard to imagine Menace II Society getting financing and going on to establish directors Allen and Albert Hughes as hot talents who could bring humanity to people so easily reduced to cartoonish, amoral miscreants in other popular contexts.
There are other problems that Singleton has to face because he, like every serious black creator in every arena, has to address the fact that there is a large black audience for the kind of drivel that so many others protest. It is not as though the new minstrelsy does not have black followers, legions of them. When his finest work thus far, Rosewood, was released, the empty-headed Booty Call came out and took the money off the table.
Rosewood was a major American film because it, on an epic scale, moved the Afro-American experience into the mythic arenas in which John Ford cast his work, where the real and the mythological stood together, where authenticity and poetic exaggeration reinforced each other, where real characters and archetypes spoke to one another and worked together. Never, in the history of American film, had southern racist hysteria been shown so clearly. Color, class, and sex were woven together on a level that Faulkner would have appreciated. For once, the parallels between Afro-American and European Jewish experience, so often cited but so clumsily discussed, were brought home. We saw different levels and degrees of racism as Singleton got his white actors to become people, not symbols. There was also a staggering rendition of how one act of dishonesty, in a moment of near madness, could bring down a holocaust rooted in envy and resentment. It was a high point in contemporary cinema.
Rosewood showed us what John Singleton can do when he has the freedom to fully explore his talents and the identification and alienation that continue to tie our society in knots. Someday we may see someone carry through what Spike Lee attempted in Bamboozled, which shows the close alignment between the black profiteers who become millionaires through the new minstrelsy and those who would use those new minstrel images to justify the kind of bigotry that our American art, at its very best, lines up against, choosing powerhouse poetry over propaganda. That someone just might be John Singleton.
Excerpted from the artificial white man by STANLEY CROUCH Copyright © 2004 by Stanley Crouch. Excerpted by permission.
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