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Baby Boy

Tyrese Gibson as Jody in Baby Boy
Tyrese Gibson as Jody
(photo by Eli Reed)

Baby Boy one-sheet For his feature film debut, Tyrese Gibson could have followed the path of many music stars and models before him and taken the easy way out--for instance, playing a small role that leaned more on the novelty of his celebrity than his ability; or headlining a fluff project more dependent on looks and hunk appeal than actual acting talent. Instead, he couldn't have chosen a more daunting proposition: (1) the lead in (2) a heavy drama (3) by celebrated writer-director John Singleton, no less than (4) the companion piece to his Academy-Award nominated Boyz N the Hood. So to say that Baby Boy was a huge, (to borrow the title of Gibson's brother Tyrone's own starring debut) all or nothing gamble for Gibson was an understatement. It would also be an understatement to day that Gibson came up a winner.

The first frames show Singleton having a little fun playing with any preconceived notions by wasting no time in offering up the sight of the R&B heartthrob in the buff. The twist is, though, that Gibson appears so in an amniotic sac, quite literally the overgrown fetus. While this is a pretty on-the-nose visual enactment of Singleton's primary thematic concern about young African-American men seemingly having the maturity level of children, it also reflects the way Gibson subverts expectations at every turn as Jody, the film's hero.

That term "hero" is meant in the most technically literary of ways, as Jody is far from the most upstanding individual. At 20 years of age, he has fathered two children with two different women, and is a general, directionless layabout who still lives with his mother. As such, the casting of Gibson, and his resulting performance, is truly inspired. Not only does the natural charm and likability he honed during his MTV hosting days and music career serve to temper the character's abrasive qualities, it also in a way frees Gibson to not soft-sell or play down those unsympathetic characteristics, either. It is often said that you are either born with the elusive "It" or not, and Gibson is a case in the affirmative, and so one is willing to follow Jody however frustrating his behavior becomes.

But the success of Gibson's performance doesn't entirely lie with intangibles. Jody spends most of the film playing the tough guy, but it's one thing to play the character as a tough guy, and another to play the character as playing tough, and Gibson successfully grasps the fine line between the two. At times his thuggish act comes off as a bit broad, but that's the point, as in reality Jody is far from the tough guy and more acting according to what's expected of him than who he really is. Singleton depicts this visually largely through frequent nightmares, but such flourishes are mere reinforcement from what can already be read in Gibson's performance, from a look in the eyes to a tremble in the voice--beneath the steely façade lies if not fear, then frustrations of his own; and true vulnerability. Jody's sensitive nature comes through most strongly in his romance with Yvette (the terrific Taraji P. Henson), which for all its torturous drama (Jody's philandering; Yvette's convict ex re-entering her life) has a palpably genuine tenderness (which makes one eager to see how Gibson will fare in a traditional romantic lead). Even Gibson's climactic breakdown scene, which comes after Jody witnesses and plays a part in a horrible crime, operates on finely shaded levels--under the tears is the anger, the angst, the shock, the shame.

While Jody's ultimate redemption and newfound maturity feels a little rushed and tidy on a writing/narrative level, the nuances that Gibson was able to lend the character makes the evolution feel organic. In fact, by film's end those nuances remain, except now at an inverted perspective--now that Jody has found peace and happiness with Yvette and their child, will Jody be able to resist those destructive urges, from outside and within? Gibson has hinted that he and Singleton have tossed around ideas for a possible follow-up, and should that ever come to pass, no doubt it will make for another riveting performance.

--Michael Dequina, December 30, 2004

Tyrese Gibson as Jody in Baby Boy
Tyrese Gibson as Jody
(photo by Eli Reed)

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