Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 108 minutes
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KRS-ONE was once quoted “Rap is something you do, Hip-Hop is something you live”. This eloquent piece of colloquialism was meant to discern between the major label industry and the art form that it supports and at times has become synonymous with for much of America. Hip-Hop has rooted itself deeply in a “keep-it-real” debate. It has become ever fearful that it will have a similar fate to Rock & Roll where a once predominately Black art form not only makes a radical demographic shift but has become nearly alien to the grand and great grand children of the innovators. Or even worse the plight of Jazz & Blues, where young black people, wishing to sever ties to what many felt was an economic sentence, unilaterally turned their back on the music many felt was a proverbial score for hard times and hence the rich legacy of virtuoso solo’s and improvisation that lives somewhere left-of-center on your member supported station is often confused with the smooth, soft (I.E. sterile) corporate Jazz that has become immensely profitable and tends to reside somewhere east of the pure Jazz station on your FM dial.
It is upon this often-confusing landscape that “Brown Sugar” is constructed. With as crowded an arena and as sought after a prize as the romantic comedy has become (primarily because they almost always find some type of an audience and rarely offend people due to their almost complete exclusion of socio-political situations) it is refreshing to see an entrant with a fresh set of attitudes and politics; the summation of which the average viewer will probably miss due to the extensive use of textual references and imagery. This film’s use of double entendre time and time again to examine the issues of class, art and love set it apart from the myriad of hopefuls all questing to claim the legacy abandoned by “When Harry Met Sally”.
In a typical romantic comedy fashion we are shown droves of people (in this case young and black) who are intelligent and confident in their successful lives, yet are missing something. The plotline centers around Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) best friends since grade school and as indivisible from each other as they are from their association to Hip-Hop affectionately attested to by the fact that Dre is an A&R and Sydney the editor for XXL. This initial ploy of the plotline is more sever than it appears; in few areas of music is there such close relation (in terms of accurate representation of the art form) between labels, the music and artists. The title of the magazine (XXL) not only references the actual Hip-Hop magazine XXL (which is offset by the other perennial Hip-Hop digest “The Source”) but its title (both in the film and in the real world) references the 80′s Hip-Hop term “livin’ large” and calls into question not only which is a higher priority of the magazine, accurate representation of the art form or propagation of the media imagery that sells magazines, but the integrity and motives of its editor.
Almost immediately Famuyiwa pulls this film into the realm of the radical. This is a film about the present state of Hip-Hop with a romantic comedy as the backdrop. A questionable decision for most since the majority of romantic comedy consumers bare a striking resemblance to Harry and Sally, but nonetheless the resulting film is quite accurate and sincere for those to whom it is aimed at. I fear that many of the mainstream (I.E. suburban) viewers will feel that this is fantasy, that these aren’t hard-held, dogmatic viewpoints swiftly denounced as much as they are defended with almost every hit of the snare drum.
In a nutshell, Dre is hands down the sexiest man alive and though his best friend Sydney is equally established and rare, they have not “hooked up”. The plotline picks up momentum when Dre becomes engaged to and eventually marries woman he has know for a mere few months. Complicating matters is a touching and prophetic moment the night before the wedding when Dre and Sydney lip-lock in an instance of passion. Their great secret is compromised even more when an N.B.A. player begins to courts Sydney. This straight forward seemingly simplistic plotline, that has absorbed more than it’s fair share of comparisons to “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, has much more to offer than the one-sheet blurb would suggest. There is a running joke in the film about “loving Hip-Hop”. In fact we are often confused (purposely) at several times in the film as to whether Sydney is referring to the actual art form of Hip-Hop or her best friend Dre. These gymnastics of pronouns are used to illustrate that association with Hip-Hop was initially a love for most. The business and posturing came much later. “Brown Sugar” wants to return to this pure, virile, puppy love form. A majority of the references about Hip-Hop are given in contrast to this ideal state that is most visibly represented by Sydney’s inflexible viewpoints.
This is a curious decision for several reasons, but primarily because this caveat demands that the plotline follow Sydney primarily and not Dre. Not exactly groundbreaking in a romantic comedy, but highly unorthodox for any media focusing on Hip-Hop (long a bastion of male dominance) and even more curious when understanding the relative star texts of Taye digs and Sanaa Lathan, this plotline is meant to shock its viewers. Elliot and Famuyiwa force the Hip-Hop consumers (both artists and audiences), who are by their own admission willing disciples of patriarchary if not at times overtly misogynistic, to readdress the traditional roles of gender and power relations that this film inherits from Black (Southern) culture. Consequently this text is riddled with complexities for you to unravel. Test yourself during the film, seem how many of the MC’s you can name before the film does it for you, how many voices can you recognize? Listening to artist after artist illustrate the landmark recordings and artists that made them enter the industry puts you decisively in or out of its radical loop. This somewhat documentary opening of the film lends legitimacy to the art form. Many will find it hard to believe that Hip-Hop is considered an art form or that it has be around for the number of years that this film makes claim to but in greater emphasis most will wonder where they were when all this cool stuff was happening.
While I do not feel the need to expound any further on the plotline, because by romantic comedy definition the trajectories can only expand indefinitely until a happy conclusion, I must at least give you the basis for the intertextual arguments that will be presented. Dre and Sydney (one married the other engaged) initially attempt to separate themselves but are thrust back together (much to the chagrin of each’s partner) when Dre quits his A&R job to start a label and Sydney gives him the starting capital. Interjected between this two “relationships” is the courting of Francine (Queen Latifah) Sydney’s cousin and confidant by Chris (Mos Def) the hardcore MC that Dre sees at a show who refuses to sign with his label Millennium Records due to the recent commercial direction of the company.
Dre (Diggs) is an extremely dark-skinned brother with pronounced African-American features, sharing this anthropological plane is Sydney (Lathan) who is more than a stones throw from the visions of black female beauty purported by the fashion industry or even B.E.T. for that matter. They are offset by Dre’s love interest and wife Nicole (Reese Marie Wiggins) and Sydney’s love interest and fiancÃ©e Kelby (Boris Kodjoe) who are both light-skinned and much closer to a Euro-centric standard of beauty. I choose not to read the couplings along the lines of light skin versus dark skin in relation to class for it could serve no other purpose than to rekindle the most widely known yet seldom discussed debate amongst the Black community. No, it would seem that Famuyiwa use the diversity of melanin to make insights about the recording industry. Dre and Sydney’s dark features coincide with their diehard love for Hip-Hop and their commitment to keep it pure. In fact, in the aforementioned night before the wedding scene the lip-lock is preceded by a discussion of whether or not Dre has “sold-out” (another burgeoning debate in Hip-Hop) when Sydney informs he and us that partial selling out is required to remain successful and gainfully employed in the industry we are left to ponder this train of thought. We overhear a conversation about the lasting effects of the popularity and influence (I.E. money) associated with the art form. Sydney has a tone of unavoidable regret, similar to the stockbroker who has just lost the life’s savings of an octogenarian but comforts himself but stating that she knew the risks of investment. Surrounding this ideological debate is the lighter skinned personnel who come in between what we are led to believe is the true relationship. Their lighter skin color seems to represent the dissolution of the pureness of the art form. Therefore it is no real surprise that Reese (Nicole Ari Parker) is an attorney who wholeheartedly supports the new direction of Dre’s employer Millennium to make hits and not art, and vehemently objects to the decision of Dre to leave his current employer and start his own label purely for the love of music. Nor is it shocking that Sydney’s fiancÃ©e Kelby (Boris Kodjoe) never reads any of her record reviews yet aspires to be an MC (another burgeoning debate in Hip-Hop). These lines of art vs. commerce, light vs. dark (the semiotic reversal of the traditional roles of light and dark are not lost on the Hip-Hop audience), which really dissolve into true Hip-Hop vs. the recording industry are reinforced time and time again throughout the duration of “Brown Sugar”. The only dissenting member is Dre’s boss Simon (Wendell Pierce), with dark features and an unyielding objective for commercialization of the art from. But his placement is not all that problematic if we are to refresh ourselves with the history of Hip-Hop. Long ago, before artists realized that the real money was in publishing and not recording and hence begun their own labels, major labels were (and still are) run by unscrupulous individuals who sought to maximize return by any means. An overwhelming number of which had fair skin and the most notorious of which, whom I hesitate to name lest I be dragged into legal proceedings, was made light of in the Dr. Dre video “Dre Day”. It would seem then that Simon is an archetype of that right whose features have been pushed to the “darker” side of the spectrum in an attempt to illustrate that these decision are more akin to greed, power & ambition than skin color.
In fact this film disseminates its politics in dichotomous parts. The greatest of which is Eminem and Mos Def. Mos Def, easiestly the most well known “hardcore” artist is constantly paired in opposition to the likeness of Marshall Mathers, the trailer park wunderkind who holds the distinction of being the only artist Dr. Dre ever signed from a demo and has finally allowed the rap industry to accomplish what it’s has been trying to accomplish since “Rapper’s Delight” soared to number one on the charts more than two decades ago, move massive amounts of units in suburban locales. This affirmed by the fact that after Dre’s (Diggs) initial run-in with Ren and Ten the “Hip-Hop Dalmatians” he confronts his boss Simon about their being signed to the label with his approval. Simon goes on a long diatribe about how “Eminem open the doorâ€¦” and how this act will help him get the coveted MTV rotation and hence platinum status. But for the most telling sign re-watch the dinner scene where Dre and Reese bump into Sydney and Kelby in a restaurant. This awkward scene is made more awkward by the loud entry and antics of Ren and Ten. But listen closely to the soundtrack and hear portions of “My name is” (Eminem’s breakout hit) playing softly in the background.
Still not convinced? Chris’s (Mos Def) love interest is Francine played by Queen Latifah. For those who are not familiar with the lineage of Hip-Hop, Queen Latifah dates back to the era of Scott LaRock (DJ and brother to one of the legendary MC’s KRS-ONE who was tragically shot dead and began the legacy that Money Love and Big-L would inherit and is currently occupied by Biggie and Tupac) and is for many of us Hip-Hop royalty. Her street credibility is undeniable as is Mos Def’s. With Chris (Mos Def) as Dre’s confidant and Francine (Queen Latifah) as Sydney’s it is as if their textual imagery is meant to guide the main characters through the plotline to the correct decisions and to return to an era when it was about love (literally or metaphorically for Hip-Hop or each other). Their quasi-involvement in the main plotline and there relative (physical) distances from almost all happenings also suggests that true Hip-Hop is never that far from where any particular person is located, that person merely need look for it. Most telling is Chris’ (Mos Def) attitude when approached by Dre about possibly being signed. Chris is apathetic and disinterested. Seemingly to indicate the true purveyors of Hip-Hop are pursuing loftier goals than monetary compensation, and Chris’ day job as a cabbie who “is trying to stay alive” serves to indicate Elliot’s and Famuyiwa’s awareness of how inherently dangerous being in the rap industry can be.
Famuyiwa paints a dark portrait of the industry and its possible future. Never is this art vs. commerce debate won decisively in arts favor, yet the true economic litmus test is pushed out of sight to the pending success of the abundantly artistic yet under funded label collaboration of Chris and Dre. This ensemble piece is quite entertaining and extremely funny at times. It gains it’s strength from the willingness of all participants to create a piece that would be introspective and stand the test of time, instead of a star vehicle of Taye Diggs or a serious launching pad for Sanaa Lathan. It greatest asset though is Mos Def who does phenomenal acting job in conjunction with the downplaying of his lyrical skills. Unlike its mass marketed competition that chooses to highlight their MC’s skills in the forefront. Lastly, pay particular attention to the photographic (cinematographic) style employed in this film. From is mockumentary opening to the use of jump cuts in the last few reels it is forward thinking. “Brown Sugar” attests that African-American filmmaking has moved to level of not only narrative but also technical sophistication. You would be hard pressed to find another entry with a greater possibility of influencing emerging filmmakers.
In closing, I would urge you to see this film because it is a definitive snapshot of a deeply complex arrangement of power, art and identity. And while it will never do the business of the “other” Hip-Hop film, it did set an opening day record for Fox Searchlight pictures so that has to be worth some amount of “juice” in the New Hollywood. Come for romance, stay for laughter and learn the history of the number one selling music in this country.
Posted on December 1, 2002 in Reviews by Marcus D. Russell
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- HIGH-DEFINITION SYDNEY
- THIS FESTIVAL’S A BUNCH OF CRAP
- WITHOUT A BOX GOES GLOBAL
- BROWN SUGAR
- “DO WE HAVE PLANS TO INVADE THE MIDDLE EAST?”
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