As you can guess, graduation has gotten me a little behind on the blogging. No worries. I’m still here. And I’ve got several movie reviews coming down the pike. But instead of looking forward, I decided to do a little reminiscing on some of the best (and often overlooked) movies of the past. Check out my review of the 2001 flick Brown Sugar.
“Hip-Hop: You are the Love of My Life.”
It’s rare to find a movie that mixes music, culture, humor and love in an artistic and intelligent manner. Brown Sugar (2002) starring Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs does just that. It’s a refreshing romantic comedy that features the unsung love between two old friends and their love affair with the tie that bonds them – hip-hop.
Pete Rock, De La Soul, Method Man, Jermaine Dupre, Common and Russell Simmons. These are just a few of hip-hop music‘s greats. Brown Sugar opens with their honest and revealing responses to the question: “So when did you fall in love with hip-hop?”
This is the question that Sidney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan), a music journalist, has asked of her interviewees for the past 10 years. It is also the question of her life. In the beginning, her answer was simple. “I remember the very first day I fell in love with hip hop. It was July 18, 1984.”
It’s no coincidence that this day was also the day she met Dre Ellis (Taye Diggs) on a New York brownstone stoop 15 years ago. (The film was one of the first productions to shoot on location in New York after 9/11.) Both of them stopped to stare at a lyrical battle in the Bronx between rappers Doug E. Fresh, Dana Dane, and Slick Rick the Ruler. This moment was their initiation into the hip-hop culture and forever defined their love for the genre.
The two impressionable youngsters let music be their life’s guide. Dre became a well-known record producer and executive for a major record label. And Sidney has succeeded in her career as a film critic, working first for the Los Angeles Times and then as editor of hip-hop magazine, XXL. She is also authoring a book on her love affair with rap music. Her discussion of hip-hop for the manuscript serves as the poetic thread and shining star that guides the story along.
Although Sidney and Dre seem to be perfect for one another and have a lot in common like music and childhood experiences, they’ve never pursued a relationship. Instead, they’ve kept it platonic and remained close — just like their rapport with hip-hop.
“For many people, hip-hop was that first friend. The first to talk to us. The first to understand. Hip-hop has always been that kind of friend to me. Like any relationship, I’ve watched it grow. I’ve watched it change,” said Sidney as she typed her manuscript.
Somewhat of a workaholic, Sidney hasn’t made much time for romance. On the other hand, smooth and suave Dre is quite the player who has had his choice of women. However after dating one special woman for a couple of months, a beautiful entertainment attorney Reese (Nicole Ari Parker of TV’s “Soul Food”), who he calls “brown sugar” because she is “wifey material” – smart and fine, he decides to pop the question. Reese, who doesn’t yet realize the strong connection between Sidney and Dre, joyfully accepts.
As Dre’s best friend, Sidney does her best to fight her feelings and support his upcoming nuptials and relationship with Reese, who quickly learns that their relationship comes second to his friendship with Sid. Dre’s impending marriage to Reese only continues to stirs up Sidney’s emotions that she’s trying her best to ignore. Her cousin and friend, Francine (Queen Latifah), tells her she should fight for her man. In Francine’s words, Sidney could get the best of both worlds – “the buddy and the booty.”
Although there are a couple of bumps along the walk down the aisle, Dre and now jealous Reese manage to get married. And maybe, just maybe, the two old chums are better of as friends?
Seeking to downplay (and cover up) her feelings for Dre, Sidney finds a few spare moments for an interview with a handsome basketball player, Kelby Dawson (Boris Kodjoe of “Soul Food”). After a storybook pursuit, complete with a house full of roses, the two end up dating. So, even though Sidney and Dre have loving, successful and attractive partners, (people only most of us could dream of) they have difficulty focusing their hearts on their lovers. Instead of giving into the temptation to be together, they simply try harder to fight the surfacing feelings.
“Just when you think you know everything about hip-hop, it finds a way to surprise you,” says Sidney.
Using hip-hop as a metaphor for their relationship, Sidney and Dre use the music’s lyrics and their memories with songs to cope with life’s challenges. Like when Dre decides to quit his powerful record label position because “hip-hop has lost its way,” he meets up with Sid to play lyric guessing games. And reminiscing about Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” and Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” provides the inspiration for him to start his own record label. He hopes to bring back “real hip-hop” by signing a cab driver and MC, Chris ‘Cav’ Anton Vichon, played by real-life rapper Mos Def.
The rest of the movie follows Sidney and Dre as they try to make sense of their relationships, lives and careers through the changing verses of hip-hop songs.
“So, what is the difference between rap and hip-hop? It’s like the difference in saying that you love someone and being in love with somebody. Rap is just a word,” said Sidney.
Ultimately, the two lifelong friends are forced to choose between loving who is in their hearts versus who they think they should love. And in the end, they must determine the true meaning of love.
“I always thought one day I would outgrow my relationship with hip-hop. I never thought it was a fad like many, but I never thought it could grow and mature,” said Sidney.
In addition to the complexities of love, the film definitely showcases some of the best of hip-hop. But it’s also not blind to the cultural critique that it has become too commercialized. For humor and for criticism, Brown Sugar does a good job of making fun of the state of the hip-hop industry with group, “Ren & Ten” the hip-hop Dalmatians, who are represented by Dre’s former company, Millennium Records. A black and white male duo dressed up in hilarious spotted coats with songs like “The Ho Is Mine” (a spoof of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson‘s “The Girl Is Mine”) goes a long way in depicting the tension between hip-hop and how its need to make money often bastardizes it. It’s the common struggle between art and economics.
Thus, it’s a no-brainer with a film so wrapped up in music that its soundtrack and score, composed by Robert Hurst, delivers. And if you enjoy hip-hop, it is pure musical genius. In between musings over life, the audience gets snippets of electrifying rap songs and thunderous bass beats like Boogie Down Production’s “The Bridge is Over” and Mos Def’s “Brown Sugar” featuring Faith Evans. The songs, like hip-hop, become the other main character that serves to lift, reinforce and underline the high and low points in the movie.
Brown Sugar is directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), co-written by Michael Elliott and marks Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s debut as an executive producer on a feature film. Michael Elliot, whose writing credits include Like Mike and MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera, said “when he was writing Brown Sugar, he had a desire to create a love story inside the world that he loved–hip hop.”
“I always felt like all the great love stories weren’t ones that had Black people in them,” said Elliot in an interview. “I just wanted to create something really romantic that by the end of the movie, touched you.”
Both Elliot and Famuyiwa wanted to create a romantic comedy that would stand up next to some of the best like When Harry Met Sally (1989), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and feel as heartfelt as Love & Basketball (2000) another film that also starred Sanaa Lathan.
“I love doing stories about friendships and relationships and how we fall in love,” explained Famuyiwa, who made his film directorial debut with The Wood (1989). “I thought that it would be interesting to make a film where the characters’ love for the music spoke to the love that they had for each other. That’s the idea that I wanted to play with.”
In addition to the intelligent romantic comedy plot and the poetic use of the lyrics to move the scenes along, Brown Sugar exceeds because of its all-star cast. Sanaa Lathan (who plays Sidney Shaw) is a Tony Award-nominated, NAACP Image Award-winning actress who has starred in several box office hits including Love & Basketball (2000), Alien vs. Predator (2004), Something New (2006) and Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys (2008). A dynamic actress, Lathan has become well known for her roles in romantic comedies based on the African American experience.
Similarly, handsome theater, film and television actor Taye Diggs (who played Dre Ellis) has become a household name. The Jamaican born Diggs is most known for his roles in the Broadway musical “Rent,” the 1998 motion picture How Stella Got Her Groove Back (based on the bestselling book by Terry McMillian) and the current hit television show “Private Practice.”
Together, Lathan and Diggs sizzle on screen in a performance that has chemistry and realism.
“There’s only so far that you can go pretending to be best friends, but Taye and I have worked together before,” says Lathan of her chemistry with Diggs. “We’ve been friends ever since then, so we’re very comfortable with each other. We’re able to be silly and let it all hang out.”
Brown Sugar also features all-star performances by two hip-hop legends, Queen Latifah and Mos Def who add humor and light-heartedness to the romantic comedy. And to round out the sexy and eye candy nature of the film, Boris Kudjoe (Kelby Dawson) and Nicole Ari Parker (Reese), who are both the stars of the Showtime series “Soul Food”, bring an special spark to the screen with their chemistry. A true heartthrob, Kudjoe was named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” by People Magazine in 2002. (Parker and Kudjoe share their own special connection because the two are married with children in real life.
Part of Brown Sugar‘s brilliance is that it doesn’t oversimplify its characters or confine them to predictable patterns. For example, cheaters are not made into villains. Disagreements are resolved amicably and without violence or bloodshed. And unlike the often stereotypical portrayal of African Americans on the screen as loud, violent and full of dirty humor, these characters are smart, funny, honest, warm and realistic.
Whether or not you are a fan of hip-hop, you will relate to the struggles of loving your best friend and following your heart in this romantic comedy. And although the ending is admittedly a bit syrupy sweet, it doesn’t disappoint. Brown Sugar manages to blend music and love at just the right tempo because after all – Sidney and Dre are “the perfect verse over a tight beat.”
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