Both a winning, friends-or-more romance with intelligent, down-to-earth characters and a melodious love-letter to the heart and soul of hip-hop, "Brown Sugar" signals director Rick Famuyiwa's emergence as an articulate, grown-up voice in African-American (and cross-over) cinema.
Far more mature and perceptive than recent stereotype-hocking, battle-of-the-sexes "comedies" like "The Brothers" and "Two Can Play That Game," this movie may not have a terribly original plot -- in the midst of plans to marry other people, two life-long best friends (Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan) finally realize they're meant for each other -- but the story is built around smart, appealing, multi-dimensional characters whose romantic (and other) problems are not simplistic or easily resolved.
The supernaturally handsome and magnetic Diggs plays Dre, an executive at a record label that has sold its soul for commercial success. Torn between making a good living and sticking to his principles (defined by his true love of unadulterated, old-school hip-hop), he finally walks out when his boss tells him "You wanna keep it real, you go to (another label). You wanna keep it profitable, that's what we do." (A running gag features the label's talentless new black-and-white novelty rap duo who call themselves "the dalmatians of hip-hop" and plan to remake "The Girl Is Mine" as "The Ho is Mine.")
Beautiful, unaffected Lathan ("Love and Basketball") plays Sidney, a dedicated and highly respected music journalist who begins every interview with the soul-searching question, "So, when did you first fall in love with hip-hop?" Her own answer: "I remember the exact day -- July 18, 1984," when she was walking to elementary school and saw future rap icons Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh and Dana Dane having a rhyme-spinning showdown right there on the sidewalk. That was also the day she met Dre, a little boy who helped her onto a park bench to get a better view over the gathering crowd.
As "Brown Sugar" opens, Dre is about to get married when Sidney's move back to New York (for a job after years on the West Coast) throws them both for a loop as the embers of back-burnered desires are stoked. But neither of them put their other relationships on hold, which leads to jealousy and other complications. "All the secrets I have to beg for (from Dre), you already know," laments Dre's beautiful, independent but devoted new wife (Nicole Ari Parker) with more than a little resentment in her voice.
Meanwhile, Sidney can't find a man who is "on the same page" as she is. ("You're turning into a Terry McMillan character," teases her cousin, played by Queen Latifah.) So she bides her time with a handsome and chivalrous but egocentric basketball star (Boris Kodjoe) whom she met when interviewing him about his hip-hop ambitions.
Famuyiwa, who co-wrote the script with former Krush Rap publisher Michael Elliot, has a strong feel for these characters, who are realistically complex and sophisticated even if they are blind to the fact that they're with Mr. and Mrs. Wrong. He also has a knack for depicting how much the music of the streets is in their blood, even all these years after leaving the streets behind for better lives. The film more than does justice to its classic, powerhouse 45-song soundtrack and to the bevy of hip-hop luminaries (Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap, Jermaine Dupri, Pete Rock, Russell Simmons, Talib Kweli, Common, Black Thought and more) who appear in interview footage answering Sidney's favorite question.
As the romantic tension mounts between the two friends, Dre is also starting his own record label, which takes a toll on his marriage. He wants to "bring on artists and treat them like partners," and his first hurdle is to win the trust of a talented MC (played with passion and good humor by Mos Def) who drives a cab by day but had too much integrity to sign with Dre when he was working as a corporate stooge.
Little effort is put toward making Dre's and Sidney's jobs seem realistic, and the picture does have a feel-good inevitability about it that slightly sours its fresh amulgam of somewhat familiar storylines. But Famuyiwa creates depth and uncertainty within these stories by allowing his actors to emotionally flesh out their characters to a fulfilling degree. Diggs and Lathan genuinely have the chemistry of cherished old friends unsure about admitting there's a spark between them, and Parker -- in what would normally be a thankless role -- strikes a deft balance between jealously, dedication to her husband, and the objectivity to admit when her marriage isn't working the way it should.
As a result of this creative freedom, you can truly feel the love -- and the love of music -- in "Brown Sugar."
Run time: 109 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th October 2002
Box Office USA: $27.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $27.4M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 66%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 29
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Sanaa Lathan as Sidney 'Syd' Shaw, Taye Diggs as Andre Romulus 'Dre' Ellis, Mos Def as Chris 'Cav' Anton Vichon, Queen Latifah as fracine, Nicole Ari Parker as Reese Marie Wiggam Ellis, Boris Kodjoe as Kelby Dawson