A Difficult Coming of Age

John Singleton is standing out on the sidewalk, admiring a row of palm trees that stretches down the block, out to the horizon. The moon is peeking through the palm fronds and, perhaps because film directors see things filtered through the gauzy eye of artistic intentions, the humble street just off Vernon Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, with its gnarled backyard orange trees, seems to glisten with all the serenity of picture-postcard Los Angeles.

"It looks just like Beverly Hills," Singleton says.

Back in his old neighborhood, the 33-year-old director is feeling expansive as he sets up the last shot of the night for "Baby Boy," which Sony Pictures will release June 29, almost 10 years to the day after "Boyz N the Hood," his celebrated debut film. At Singleton's side is Big Cat, a former Rolling 60s Crips O.G. (original gangster) who serves as the director's"gangologist," counseling lead actors Tyrese and Omar Gooding in the walk and talk of authentic gangbangers.

As someone who has just marked the first anniversary of release from his latest stretch in prison, Big Cat sees things with a little less picture-postcard glow. Looking up at the palm trees, he alertly points out a crime helicopter circling overhead. "I don't know, John," he says. "I think we're a long way from Beverly Hills."

If Singleton weren't so young, you'd call "Baby Boy" his comeback film. His last movie, "Shaft," was a commercial hit, but it got mixed reviews and was firmly under the control of producer Scott Rudin, who publicly feuded with Singleton, as did Samuel L. Jackson, the film's star. Before "Shaft," Singleton had made three personal films, all with black casts and subjects, but none had the overwhelming critical and commercial impact of "Boyz."

With this film, Singleton wanted to look inward, to make a movie that would capture the intimate moments between black men and women that are rarely visible on screen. He envisions "Baby Boy" as a coming-of-age story, much like "The Graduate" or "Saturday Night Fever" but with a black man as the hero of the story.

His hero is considerably different from "The Graduate's" Benjamin Braddock: Jody is a 20-year-old weed-smoking hustler who has two babies with different women but lives at home with his mother and her O.G. boyfriend, spending most of his time in his room, playing with remote-control lowrider model cars.

Singleton sees the movie as his version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," a soul-searching look at a lost generation of young black men.

"The hardest thing to do is shock black folk," he says one day. "But this movie is going to be strong." As he says that last word, he mimes a punch to the stomach.

"Somebody at the studio said this movie is misogynistic. I know the black bourgeoisie are going to hate it. But I'm not celebrating ignorance, like rappers bragging about not knowing how to read. I'm just being honest--I'm not wrapping things up in an easy package. For me, this movie is like watching the soul of a black man on screen. It may be dysfunctional, but it's real."

Having read the script and watched Singleton at work last month, I can safely say that "Baby Boy" will shock more than just black folk. In an era in which Hollywood has produced a steady stream of cozy, feel-good movies, "Baby Boy's" raw, unsettling portrait of violent young black men who've been raised by single mothers could provoke enough debate to knock Eminem off the op-ed pages for a while.

It's certainly a bracing departure from dramas like "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Family Man," in which black characters have largely been on hand, as critic Ernest Hardy put it, to play "spiritual mammy to white folk."

If any one moment captures the mood of "Baby Boy," it's a scene in which Jody has sex with his girlfriend Yvette. As they moan with passion, they growl at each other: "I love you, I hate you. I love you, I hate you. . . ."

One day Singleton shows me the movie's opening sequence, which displays Jody, naked except for his gang tattoos, curled up in a pool of fluid like a baby in a womb. "This is a movie about a generation of young black men who haven't grown up," he explains. "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 is baby boys."

Singleton sees Jody and his friends as young lions on the Serengeti, except "they're going around the Crenshaw Mall, checking out the 16-year-old girls. They're trying to define and defend their manhood at the same time, from their women, the white world and themselves. In their neighborhood, you're not a man until you're a killer. You look at me the wrong way--bam! I'm not putting a good or bad [judgment] on it. It's the way it is. We kill, we make babies, we try to survive."

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Singleton grew up in South-Central too, but unlike his friends, he wanted to be Steven Spielberg, not Magic Johnson or "Scarface's" Tony Montana. Singleton went to the USC film school, where it was obvious he was a special talent. He remains obsessed with movies; after spending all day shooting his film, you could find him at 3 a.m. in his production office screening room, watching "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Billy Elliot."

He was only 23 when he made "Boyz," which earned him an Oscar nomination and helped launch the careers of "Boyz" actors Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Nia Long, Angela Bassett and Morris Chestnut.

In many ways "Baby Boy," which completed shooting earlier this month, is "Boyz N the Hood" revisited a decade later. The set has a familial feel; the largely black crew includes about 15 people who worked with Singleton a decade ago on "Boyz."

The movie is cast largely with newcomers like Tyrese, the charismatic MTV veejay who plays Jody, and Omar Gooding, Cuba's brother, who plays Jody's friend Sweetpea. Its best-known actors are Ving Rhames, who plays Melvin, Jody's mother's O.G. boyfriend, and rap star Snoop Dogg, who plays Rodney, Yvette's just-out-of-prison old boyfriend.

The script almost didn't get made because most studios found it too violent and disturbing. Eventually Singleton took it to Sony, where studio Chairman Amy Pascal, an original supporter of "Boyz," agreed to do the film for $14 million.

Singleton says he couldn't have made the movie until now: "I'd never been anywhere, never done anything except go to school. I'm grown now. I couldn't have written this without being a father. It made me a better director and a better person."

When he began writing the script, Singleton questioned various friends, male and female, about their relationships. He says he was struck by a common dysfunctional nature, especially by how much control women had over the purse strings in black households. "There's no Cinderella thing in the black community," Singleton explains. "It's the women who take care of the man. They have all the disposable income--the cars, TVs, clothes. With young men, there's this pimp thing . . . , but the women have the real power."

Although the story is clearly told from a man's point of view, its themes may resonate with women too. The movie hit especially close to home for Michelle Richards, a veteran actress who was a "character" coach for the less experienced cast members.

"You see stories like this everywhere," she says. "For a lot of young black men, their only power is either having a child or having a gun. Women are very emotional beings, so they raise these young men to go out into a world that is afraid of them, and the men end up being volatile and emotional like their mothers, except that the emotion comes out in bravado and gunshots."

Richards thinks that the movie will cause a furious debate in the black community. "But John is showing the truth. This movie is a mirror. It's saying, 'Is this who you want to be?' "

Singleton insists that the film is more personal than strictly autobiographical. Still, Singleton and Jody do have something in common. The director, who was married once for five months, has fathered five children with four women. All but one were born out of wedlock. Singleton says he has joint custody of all five kids and provides them with financial support. The two eldest girls have small parts in the movie.

He acknowledges that some of the film echoes his various relationships: "The drama of maintaining a relationship with someone you had kids with, but didn't live with, that's definitely in the movie."

Singleton blames his failed relationships on his celebrity status, saying that after he became a film director, women "were all after me; it was my success that made me attractive. Let's face it, women have an instinct to nest and men have an instinct to spawn."

When pressed on the issue, he reconsiders a bit. "A lot of the responsibility is on my end. I was selfish and I didn't know what I was doing. But having children is a choice, and it takes two people to make that choice. It's a matter of the heart, not the brain, so it's not easy to judge."

It's not so easy to judge the young hustlers in his new film either. Like a lot of younger artists today--and certainly Eminem comes to mind again--Singleton won't spell out what he's saying about their behavior, insisting that we interpret it for ourselves. The only thing that seems clear is that Singleton sees Jody as a kindred spirit, whose humanity is as real as his scars and tattoos.

"Jody is me if I never went to college or never got out of the neighborhood," he says. "He's my friends and cousins and millions of young black people. You know, 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.' "

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"The Big Picture" is published every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have comments, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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