Brown Sugar February 24, 2022
Nicole Ari Parker
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
o matter how important they are in the grand scheme of our lives, few of us can remember the exact dates of our biggest personal milestones. Sidney (Sanaa Lathan), the lead of Rick Famuyiwa’s excellent Brown Sugar (2002), is an exception. She’ll always remember July 18, 1984, as one of the most — if not the most — formative days of her life. After peeling away from her family’s Bronx brownstone one afternoon, she
happened to catch Dana Dane, Doug E. Fresh, and Slick Rick (then still going by Ricky D) in a cypher at the basketball court down the street. The date remains so immortal to her because it was the first time she fell in love. With hip-hop; with a friendly neighborhood boy named Dre (played in adulthood by Taye Diggs) who, after noticing her struggle to see over the shoulders of onlookers, offered a hand to stand with him on a neighboring bench.
Nothing ever came of that second love, though. When we meet Sidney and Dre again as adults, they’re simply best friends, still fastened together by the profound love of hip-hop that first took seed that one summer day. At the start of Brown Sugar, Sidney is now an established music journalist and critic, and is leaving her hip-hop beat at the Los Angeles Times for a more challenging editor-in-chief gig at XXL magazine. Dre is an A&R man at Millennium Records, a flourishing rap label. The pair has a finishing-each-other’s-sentences closeness. Almost immediately into Brown Sugar you can predict that the final act of the movie will coincide with them finally trying out romance — something they’ve avoided mostly out of wanting not to jeopardize a truly great friendship.
But it’s going to take nearly all of Brown Sugar for them both to work up a lasting nerve and scrap the obstacles making them avoid anything serious: the lawyer, Reese (Nicole Ari Parker), Dre hastily marries during the film’s first act; the basketball player (Boris Kodjoe) Sidney takes up with; and the professional complications bubbling up from Dre’s discontentment at Millennium (he hates how they favor tacky hit-chasing over more “serious” artists) and Sidney’s agonizing over the book she’s writing concurrent to her demanding job.
Romantic-comedy devotees may think Brown Sugar takes too long, and has too many petty interferences, to get its couple together, with the few teases of what’s to come — like a spontaneous kiss the night before Dre and Reese’s wedding, or a surprise night together later in the film — a little meager. But I didn’t mind the slow burn. Ably guided by Famuyiwa with the help of co-writer Michael Elliot, the intervening action doesn’t feel like filler. Sidney and Dre’s love for hip-hop, and the lengths to which they go to keep it a central, productive part of their lives, is taken seriously and with interest (with Rick Famuyiwa attentively detailing record-label and magazine-industry practicalities to boot). And both characters are established enough as individuals and creatives to make them just as interesting when separated or together. When they are together, you’re struck by the ease. By then established fixtures of the era’s romantic-comedy sphere, Lathan and the often very funny Diggs (they’d played a couple on the rocks in 1999’s The Best Man) have such an effortlessly comfortable dynamic that even scenes where they aren’t doing much besides hanging out have their own kind of electricity.
Sidney’s and Dre’s conflicting romantic obligations are also given a weight that’s nice to see in a romantic comedy, a genre that has historically treated those inadvertently standing in the way of the focal pair like single-use plastics. Reese isn’t rendered, as she could be in another film, an insufferable, nagging other woman we’re nudged to want out of the picture. Played likably by Parker, she’s a reasonable and thoughtful person understandably frustrated by how her husband easily opens up to Sidney but will shut her out of matters that are certainly her business — namely brashly quitting his job on the spot to start his own, financially risky label without so much as mentioning the idea to his wife ahead of time. And basketball player Kelby’s wrongness for Sidney — he loves her but proves only superficially interested in the writing around which so much of her life revolves — doesn’t turn him into an afterthought. You really do feel bad when his and Sidney’s incompatibility reaches its breaking point.
Brown Sugar, one of the best romantic comedies of its decade, isn’t free of the kinds of silly contrivances we associate with the genre. The charming, if admittedly saccharine, happy ending that arrives when Sidney is guesting on Hot 97 comes together almost too neatly. As does the success that emerges for the taxi-driving underground rapper (Yasiin Bey, in a first-rate comic turn) for whom Dre has basically founded his entire label. Still, this is a rare otherwise earthbound romantic comedy that doesn’t make its central romance the most interesting thing about its characters. It’s as fascinated by what drives them as people as what drives them together. A-