Brown Sugar

Reviewed By wintermute
Posted 11/21/02 07:07:02

"Finally, a film about hip hop without a SINGLE flashed handgun!"
5 stars (Awesome)

Newcomer director Rick Famuyiwa has managed to channel the maturing spirit of hip hop into a film that is both a pleasure to watch and remarkably free of the cliches that have come to plague this genre for the last 5 or so years.

Brown Sugar opens with the unexpected - a montage of hip hop pioneers and current artists, well represented by examples such as Russel Simmons, ?uestlove and Kool Moe D, discussing when and why they first fell in love with hip hop. From here, we are introduced to the characters of Dre and Sidney, friends since childhood, who will serve as our eyes, ears and hearts as we journey through what hip hop means to so many people.

Dre, played by Taye Diggs, is a successful record label executive gradually coming to terms with the fact that he produces derivative drivel that undermines the music he once held so dear. Saana Lathan, star of Love and Basketball and Blade is Sidney, his best friend and renowned interviewer/editor for XXL. She has just moved back to NY for her new editing gig, and is happy to be reunited Dre.

The film is narrated by Lathan, who gives us her insight as a writer into what she perceives hip hop means not only to her, but to everyone in the community. We see her shock and burial of her deep feelings for Diggs' character when she discovers he is about to be married to a successful young lawyer. The unspoken animosity between Sidney and the bride-to-be Reese fills the theatre from their first meeting to a boil over at the fitness center. Nicole Ari Parker is sufficiently tempting as Reese - we can easily see why Dre has difficulty choosing between what his heart tells him is right, and what his libido tells him is so very very NASTY.

As Sidney struggles with her best friend's wedding, she finds solace in the arms of NBA star Kelby, played by the improbably named Boris Kodjoe(he has a sister named Nadja - wackiness!). We can see the changes both of them undergo - Sidney allows her personality to gradually ebb away as she is swept into Kelby's romance - her clothes, jewelery and writing undergo subtle transformations that she herself doesn't immediately realize. Dre's fast track to success has travelling too fast to realise that he has left his self respect and integrity far behind him, as he represents acts such as the 'Hip Hop Dalmatians' a cutting stab at the current bling bling mentality that saturates radio-played hip hop.

But Dre wakes up, quits his 9-5 and gets live. He doggedly pursues underground hip hop impresario 'Chris', essentially Mos Def playing himself. Signing him to his own startup label, with the financial backing of Sidney, he takes steps towards taking back control of his life and living his dreams, instead of letting the industry take him for a ride. Along the way he loses his wife, but he of course discovers that he met the love of his life 20 years ago, and that's left is for him to figure out how to convince her she feels the same way.

Surprisingly, this film manages to ditch any of the expected sentimentality attached to stories involving 'you've been in love with your best friend your whole life' scenarios. The feelings between Lathan and Diggs are readily apparent in their everyday interaction and subtle wordplay. Famuyiwa composes scenes as a chef might compose a gourmet dinner - the placement of actors in his mis en scene tells as much about their mindset and feelings as the lines they say and the expressions on their faces.

The director also takes a bold new step in hip hop film making - there is not a single violent act to be found in this film. Whereas other films in a hip hop mindset such as the fine Ghost Dog have relied on the mysticism surrounding hip hop philosophy, Brown Sugar instead explores hip hop as it affects personal relationships and a sense of community. This viewpoint works beautifully, both for people familiar with hip hop as a cultural phenomenon and for the uninitiated.

Mos Def and Queen Latifah both put in stronger performances than their previous rules would indicate, peppering the film with quick jokes. Def in particular has a few hilarious scenes, including a particularly memorable coversation with a drunk Boris Kodjoe about being his 'rap coach'.

I was quite surprised with the high caliber of this film. Famuyiwa has constructed a work which should serve as a foundation block for further exploration of hip hop culture on film. See it twice and bring a friend.

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