The Films of John Singleton
Boyz N the Hood
Higher Learning (June 24/01)
In the tradition of Short Cuts and Magnolia, Higher Learning tells several stories that come together at the end. It's also John Singleton's third (and best) film. Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson and Michael Rapaport star as freshmen at the fictional Columbus University. As the film opens, they're all trying to find their place in their new surroundings. Epps falls in with the black crowd, lead by a sage older student named Fudge (Ice Cube, in his most nuanced performance), while Swanson hooks up with an earthy lesbian (Jennifer Connelly). But the most dramatic relationship occurs with Rapaport and a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, who give him the friendship he so desperately desires. Finally, Laurence Fishburne plays a professor that routinely pops up, offering advice and counsel to those who need it. Higher Learning is consistently entertaining and well-acted all around. While it's not a perfect movie - Cube's character disappears for a 30-minute stretch and Singleton's approach often veers into heavy-handedness - it is nevertheless an intriguing look at the differences between races and how such differences can clash.
Baby Boy (December 29/01)
After essentially working as a director-for-hire on Shaft, John Singleton returns to his roots with Baby Boy. Released ten years to the month after Boyz N the Hood, Baby Boy is a similar look at an urban neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Newcomer Tyrese Gibson stars as Jody, a young man of about 20 whose life seems to consist of hanging out with his friends and doting on his two girlfriends (and his two kids with said girlfriends). His easy-going life is interrupted, though, with the arrival of a new man into his mother's life (Ving Rhames). And as if that weren't enough, the former boyfriend of one of his girlfriends is about to be released from prison (and since he's played by Snoop Dogg, you can probably guess what kind of guy he is). Baby Boy isn't about much - it's essentially just a peek into a few weeks into the life of an average, aimless 20-something slob. There's an aura of danger, however, considering the story takes place in the 'hood. Jody and his buddies are constantly on the lookout for trouble, and are ready to face it head on - guns and all. And while it's certainly a unique and occasionally fascinating look at a lifestyle completely alien to most of us, Singleton's plotless structure eventually winds up becoming awfully tiresome. There's only so much we can take of watching Jody go about his daily routine - which generally consists of him apologizing to one of his two girlfriends.
But this is territory that Singleton knows and is comfortable with, so we're given a seemingly realistic look at life in the 'hood. The cast, which consists mostly of unknowns, perfectly embodies their various roles - with Cuba Gooding Jr.'s little brother Omar a standout as Jody's pal Sweetpea. So, while it's not as gritty as Boyz N the Hood or as compelling as Higher Learning, Baby Boy is certainly worth checking out if only for the superb performances and the fully-developed characters.
2 Fast 2 Furious
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An exceedingly effective spin on the revenge thriller, Four Brothers follows the title characters (Mark Wahlberg's Bobby, Tyrese Gibson's Angel, Andre Benjamin's Jeremiah, and Garrett Hedlund's Jack) as they embark on a vicious quest to avenge the brutal murder of their foster mother (Fionnula Flanagan's Evelyn). Director John Singleton - working from David Elliot and Paul Lovett's screenplay - is clearly going for the vibe of a '70s exploitation flick here, as evidenced by his increasingly outlandish stylistic choices and the inclusion of several refreshingly brutal action sequences. And yet there's a plausibility to the whole thing that ultimately sustains it, with the jocular relationship between the brothers undoubtedly playing a key role in the film's overall success (ie Wahlberg's character, at one point, refers to a sibling as his "little sister"). The uniformly strong performances certainly go a long way towards cementing this feeling - Chiwetel Ejiofor is, in particular, a lot of fun as the film's almost comically flamboyant villain - and while the whole thing is probably a little longer than it needs to be, Four Brothers is generally a welcome throwback to the sort of over-the-top actioners that were prevalent twenty years ago.