Brown Sugar, released in 2002, is one of my favorite movies of all time. Starring Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs, Queen Latifah, Mos Def, Boris Kodjoe, Nicole Ari Parker, written by Michael Elliot, and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, the film uses the evolution of the hip-hop music genre to compliment the evolution of childhood friends who have grown up loving the music together. Made with a modest eight million dollar budget, Brown Sugar integrates real icons of hip-hop throughout the film to fortify the authenticity of the narrative, starting with a montage that asks the question when did you fall in love with hip-hop? and is answered by artists such as Common, Talib Kweli, Big Daddy Kane, and other notable hip-hop pioneers.
Sydney Shaw (Lathan) and Andre Ellis (Diggs) grew up together in New York where hip-hop was born, listening to and loving the music that was made and internalizing the culture around the music. Shaw grows up to become an extremely successful music writer and editor in chief of XXL (one of the dominant hip hop magazines), while Ellis becomes a record label executive. Having moved to Los Angeles, Sydneys new job with XXL brings her back to New York and reunites her with her best friend Andre. Throughout the film, Sydney and Andre struggle with the evolution of hip-hop into the mainstream and how that has watered down the culture, but moreso, they struggle with their friendship and unspoken deeper love for each other.
Upon her return to New York, Sydney is immediately thrown into emotional turmoil as Andre asks her opinion on his latest girlfriend, Reese Wiggam (Parker), and what Sydney thinks of the engagement ring hes gotten for Reese. Sydney is thrown off guard as she watches Andre propose to and eventually marry Reese.
Specifically requested by popular basketball player, Kelby Dawson (Kodjoe), for an interview, Sydney finds what we presume is love as well, as Kelby wants more than just a news story on his successful career. Kelby and Reese have moments of discomfort throughout the film with Sydney and Andres familiarity with and love of each other, eventually causing Reese to question her marriage to Andre and Kelby to question his relationship with Sydney, even after he proposes. Both Andre and Sydney have to face the fact that theyve both been stubborn, refusing to acknowledge deeper feelings for each other, and ask themselves if the risk of taking things to another level will be worth the presumed reward.
This is further complicated by Andres constantly asking Sydney for professional favors, giving artists on his label good reviews in her publication, even artists that neither of them believe substantially add to the genre they love. When Andre decides to quit his lucrative job to start his own, more authentic label, Sydney is his first investor, much to the chagrin of Reese. Andre, though, has found an artist that he can finally believe in and invest fully, Chris Vichon (Mos Def). The flirtation between Sydneys cousin Francine (Latifah) and Vichon adds a lighter love element to the story as well.
Brown Sugar is a beautiful love story about hip-hop and relationships and how the journey to growth, greatness, and love is often painful and confusing. Using hip-hop as a sonic landscape and the backdrop to Andre and Sydneys love story is brilliant. As hip-hop changes, grows, and succeeds, both characters ask if the sacrifices made to see such success are worth it, and those same questions apply to their relationship. Though Brown Sugar became a cult classic, it was met with lukewarm reviews from critics, receiving a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. Many critics called it "predictable," but noted the excellent performances of all involved actors and the soundtrack as the film's savior.
Will Sydney and Andre finally end up together? You’ll have to watch and see!