brown sugar (2002)


director: rick famuyiwa

taye diggs, sanaa lathan, mos def, queen latifah

It's rare to call a romantic comedy ambitious, but Rick Famuyiwa's Brown Sugar tries to be more than just a story about the sexual roulette and emotional ineptitude of young single people. At the risk of scaring anyone away, it has to be understood that the relationship between Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) isn't just about two old friends whose romance is obvious to everyone but them. But that, I'm sure, is something you'll figure out for yourself.

Dre is a hot music executive in New York's "urban scene", and his homegirl Sidney is the editor of an urban music magazine, thankfully identified as a real one - XXL - and not some winsome movie fabrication. Their whole lives have been lived in the wake of the moment when, as children, they discovered hip hop, and that bond is making Dre's fiancee, Reese, an ambitious buppie lawyer, uncomfortable. Anyone expecting an urban re-make of My Best Friend's Wedding will be surprised when Dre and Reese tie the knot less than halfway into the film, leaving an hour or so for Sidney and Dre to wreck the bonds of holy matrimony.

Dre's marriage starts to fall apart along with his career, when he's forced to work with a ludicrous "crossover" rap act represented by his wife, instead of the credible underground rapper played with surprising comic skill by rapper Mos Def. Sidney tries to escape her feelings with a Kelby, an NBA hunk (Boris Kodjoe), to no avail. She and Dre were meant for each other, and the ending is a foregone conclusion.

No formula in filmmaking is as rigorous as the romantic comedy, so Famuyiwa wisely puts his energy into the world that Sidney and Dre inhabit, a parallel New York where a black middle class draws in the best and the brightest from the projects and the street, and credibility and "realness" is a virtue constantly under attack. He does a nice job, and the best humour comes from Dre's agonies with Ren and Ten, a salt-and-pepper rap duo whose first single is a cover of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's winceworthy "That Girl Is Mine", reworked as "That Ho Is Mine".

Dre has to give up his fantasies of "brown sugar", the perfect, upwardly mobile woman who's "a freak but not a ho", and Sidney has to let him; it's about that simple. Brown Sugar is no masterpiece, but it has more ease and wit than anything Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan has made in a decade.