Sex & Negrocity

John Singleton on Shtupping, Shaft, and Spike

Black people can be found #!@$ing in John Singleton's Baby Boy. Rawdog, pardon our French. Your usual euphemisms need not apply. Not your having sex making love makem whoopee or knocking boots nor your beast with two backs gettin' it on gettin' busy gettin' down doing the do the deed the nasty the wild thing. No. Just dead all that. Negroes are #!@$ing in this movie. Rawdog. Simulating that real deal with a license to ill deal sex. That sweaty, steamy, comical, contortionist, desperate, anxious, African stuff. #!@$ing isn't all people do in Baby Boy (opening June 29), a film also fixated on life, death, familial dysfunction, repair, and redemption, not to mention one 20-year-old man's fear of cutting the umbilical cord though he has children by two working women. All the ribaldry does figure into that equation, though, primarily as a harbinger of death, rebirth, and raison d'être.

Truth to tell, the bedroom scenes aren't that graphic—there's more male nudity than distaff and that of the spear more anal than frontal. Yet Singleton's shtupping bits are grounded in live-wire, fully fleshed characters who show up demanding you feel them very deeply—and get your chuckle on with them too. Coital hilarity abounds, as when Ving Rhames's Melvin (ex-Crip and two-strikes ex-con turned landscape gardener) informs A.J. Johnson's hausfrau Juanita, "Girl you're going to give me a cavity," during one contest requiring hydraulic lifting and carrying.

The director attributes the vigor of Rhames and Johnson's bouts to some ice-breaking improvs. "Soon as A.J. came in for the first day of rehearsals, Ving picked her up, put her on his shoulders, and acted like he was eating her out, like, Hey, what's up? Then he was smacking her ass and she was like, I don't feel that. I said, Yeah this is what it's about. I wanted this movie to be almost as soulful as a Marvin Gaye record, and man, these actors bared their souls for me."

"I observe human behavior like other people watch the Discovery Channel."
Photograph by André Souroujón
"I observe human behavior like other people watch the Discovery Channel."

That must have been a good day for the randy Singleton, who was strictly forbidden by producer Scott Rudin from giving Shaft (the artist formerly known as the blackprivatedicksexmachinetoallthechicks) some booty in last summer's remake—perhaps the most unsexy blaxploitation flick in history. "There's talk of a sequel, but Sam and I want it in our contracts that there will be some sex. You can look at Baby Boyand see all the sex that was frustrated on Shaft. I put it down in this one, boy. The reason I think they were so restrictive about sex in Shaftis because they don't—and even some black filmmakers don't—see us in terms of our sensuality and roundedness as a people. The lovemaking in Baby Boyis celebratory. Melvin and Juanita have been through so much shit that they're almost having a teenage romance."

As regards the starmaking tumbles turned in by Tyrese (who knew?) Gibson as Jody and Taraji P. Henson as Yvette, Singleton reports that his r&b hunk was unable to perform until his costar got to jukin' at his pride. "We cleared the set and made it real intimate, but the only person who had a problem with the sex scenes was Tyrese. He was doing it like he was shy and I was like, 'Naw, man, you got to hit that like a thug. You got to come with it.' He said, 'Man you got me out here naked,' and I said, 'Fuck that, this is what the girls want to see.' Then Taraji was like, 'You're fucking up my scene. You better come over here and fuck this shit.' " There's irony in Henson gaming on Gibson to get her way, since the film hinges on Jody's manipulative use of his sexual charms for self-aggrandizement and selfish gain. The social reality bursting through every frame is that of relations between African Americans being now defined by who provided sperm and who provided ovum. Who your babymother, who your babyfather, so to speak.

Singleton, father to five children with four different sisters, isn't gazing at the issues from afar. "I observe human behavior like other people watch the Discovery Channel, and I see those guys come into the mall, beating their chests and fucking with these teenage girls' minds, telling them, I want you to have my baby. The story came out of that and out of my own dysfunctions, me purging my own demons. Jody's not me—I've been on my own since I was 17—but I thought, What if I still lived with my mother and what if I never knew my father? There are parts of Jody in me. I've been selfish like that.

"The film was also inspired by seeing all the different dysfunctions in the black community. Like how you're not a man unless you're a killer and who're you talking about killing? Your brother. Jail has become a rite of passage now. Like the Masai kill a lion or an Indian kill a bear, our rite of passage is you're going to jail."

The script was originally written for Tupac Shakur, paradigmatic figurehead of a generation with a death wish. Singleton's feelings about him are complex, critical, loving, angry. "There's a huge mural of Tupac in Jody's room because Pac's journey could be Jody's journey. Tupac was a baby boy. He didn't know whether he wanted to be a thug or a revolutionary. He had all this brilliance but not enough time or purpose and no mentoring at all. By the time somebody was ready to mentor him he wasn't ready to accept it. That's that whole thing of this generation thinking they know everything and they don't know shit."

Best known for his debut Boyz N the Hood, Singleton, like his inspiration Spike Lee, has pursued an idiosyncratic and independent course in the mainstream. Though he set off the 'hood genre, he hasn't really gone back until now, given Higher Learning's campus setting, Poetic Justice's road bonhomie, Rosewood's historical grasp, and Shaft's eye on summer popcorn. He openly credits Spike's Brooklynphilia with forcing him to reveal his own regional accent. "Spike had an off-kilter vision. Even if it was within the black community, it was so Brooklynized. When Do the Right Thingcame along I was miffed. I said I got to do my own motherfucking movie. Spike was so strong on Brooklyn, I thought, What's so special about me? I've got to come with L.A. I think the generation that came after us is more Hollywoodized, with a few exceptions like Ted Witcher and George Tillman. There's a segment of this generation of black filmmakers that are just like the white boys. They're just doing the same thing and we are not the same thing. I'm trying to make movies where half the people may like them and half may hate them, same as you find with hiphop music. It's young, audacious, and brash, but you're either going to dance to it or you're not."

According to Singleton, some from black journalism's upper class have not left previews of Baby Boydancing in the aisles. The phrase "walking around with a pole stuck up their asses" might be a more accurate description of their posture. Some have even proclaimed a sudden unfamiliarity with the blackfolk on screen. Singleton's not feeling them either. "People like that are just bourgie and they can kiss my ass if they think they can tell me what kind of movie I'm supposed to be making. Get real. This is very much an ethnographic film of this time, just like Boyzwas. There are no cops, no white people, it's all insular, and doesn't point the finger at anyone else. It stays in the community, all right there. The acting is so on-point you don't see the wheels turning and you feel like you're really in the ghetto watching some people fight and fuck. That kind of realism is unsettling to some people."

Undaunted by the haters and the denialists, Singleton plans to keep on going against the assimilationist grain. "Everything we do now has to be like The Best Manor Soul Foodbecause they were successful, but I need to continue making films I'm passionate about. South Central is like Queens—it's multiethnic, a dozen stories could come out of there. Nobody wants to go there now because they're too highbrow. I'm trying to make gutbucket, soulful movies that really hit your thing."

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