Starring Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Mos Def, Nicole Ari Parker, Boris Kodjoe, Queen Latifah, Wendell Pierce, Erik Weiner, Reggi Wyns, Melissa Martinez
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
“When did you fall in love with hip hop?”
This is the first question that respected hip hop journalist Sidney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan) asks the people who she interviews, and it also begins Brown Sugar. But instead of the question immediately launching us into the romantic movie proper, we’re given a series of documentary-style interviews with actual hip hop artists like Common and Questlove. It’s definitely an odd way to start a romantic comedy, but it’s very representative of the film that Brown Sugar is. It’s not just a romantic comedy or a romantic drama like the other films we’ve watched for the Black Love series, it’s all that AND it’s a love letter to hip hop.
This is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, the love of hip hop drives the two central characters in everything that they do in their careers. It’s something very near and dear to their hearts and without it their worlds would be a lot less full and vibrant. But it’s also hip hop that keeps them apart, causing the film to be more about their relationships with others than about the one relationship we really want to see and care about. Sidney and Dre (Taye Diggs) do share a lot of screen time, but it’s not the charming getting-to-know-you scenes that romantic films usually trade in. They are old friends who have already shared these moments.
This is both a good and bad thing. It’s great that the film is able to buck the trend and find a different path to take this romantic story down, but I was also frustrated as it never broke down and just gave us some raw passion and heat. Sidney and Dre do seem like old friends, and they play off each other well, but I was disappointed. Even when the film starts to go towards the romance, they never take it into a traditional “steamy” sex scene direction. I was left wanting.
But now thinking back on it, I’m actually glad that they kept this kind of thing off-screen for these characters. It’s like their connection and relationship is so special that to show it in all the juicy details would spoil it. This is also how deep their love of hip hop is, and since a major theme and plotline in the film is about keeping hip hop pure and fresh and unspoiled by exploitation and get-rich-quick bullshit, it makes sense to also handle the couple’s relationship with the same strokes. And by holding to this line, Brown Sugar is able to deliver a great final act that brings everything together in a formulaic yet very effective and rousing finale.
Along the way there are some great moments of comedy, specifically with a rap duo known as Ren & Ten: The Hip Hop Dalmatians. These guys are a great satire on an industry ready and willing to greenlight anyone they think will make them lots of money. Is it plausible that these outlandish guys would actually get signed? No, but I’m sure there are some parallels to be found in all kinds of mainstream rap artists from the late ’90s/early ’00s. I’m not knowledgeable enough about hip hop to tell you what they are, but I’m positive they’re there if you’re looking for them. Side note: I wasn’t looking but coincidentally Billy Ray Cyrus released a hip hop version of Achy Breaky Heart today… so yeah… I guess this sort of degradation of hip hop continues on!
As you can probably tell by now, my feelings are rather mixed on Brown Sugar, but at least I can see why a lot of the decisions were made in the way that they were. The ridiculous jump-cutting that shows up now and then between dialogue lines, though? That I cannot understand, but there are better things to worry about here, like bumpin’ it to the jams and admiring how fine both Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs are. I can’t call Brown Sugar a great romance film, but it’s a good one, especially if you share the characters’ love of hip hop and its origins.