The Rhythm The Love The Beat…and you don't stop
What do you get when you cross an alabaster-white DVD critic who tries to avoid romantic comedies with a romantic comedy of color? In this case, a great movie watching experience. Brown Sugar is an impressive package of a good movie that left me feeling right. Brown Sugar has been negatively contrasted with other black romantic comedies such as The Best Man and Love and Basketball. That may be true, but you have to judge a film on its own merits.
Facts of the Case
Music critic Sydney (Sanaa Lathan) has been in love with hip hop since 1984, when she witnessed some of the hip hop greats refining their craft in the South Bronx. Coincidentally, her love affair with hip hop started on the exact same day she met the eyes of Dre (Taye Diggs). Dre has become a successful exec with Millennium Records, scouting talent and pleading with Sydney to fast track reviews of Millenium stuff. The two are staunch fans of hip hop and each other, but they keep it friendly.
Sydney returns to NY from the west coast to take an editing job with XXL magazine. She arrives just in time to attend a hip hop bash and witness Dre proposing to six feet of brown sugar. The flash of disappointment in Sydney's eyes says it all. She swallows her emotion and supports Dre in his happiness.
But we all know it isn't that simple. Powerful emotions can only simmer on the back burner for so long. How will Dre and Sydney's hidden feelings manifest, and who will it hurt the most? While you're finding out, reminisce about when you fell in love with hip hop.
I wasn't prepared to like Brown Sugar. I dig a handful of hip hop artists, but haven't been keeping up with the scene. Also, I appreciate romantic comedies the same way cats like water: when I'm near one I hiss and puff up. Once doused in the artifice, I curl up in the corner to lick my wounds.
Brown Sugar contained enough conventions of the genre that I found myself coughing up the occasional furball. However, the majority of the film was smooth, multi-layered, and tight, like sublime lyrics over a hypnotic beat. The acting was superb from all players, which swept me right into their stories. The characters in Brown Sugar seemed more whole than in other romantic comedies, even when they succumbed to dreadful romantic comedy antics.
That is one aspect of Brown Sugar that I most appreciated. The must-have syrup is shrouded in an edgy veneer. This is a PG-13 film, but damned if it doesn't seem like an R movie. The humor is mature, the romance steamy. The hard edge of hip hop is not glossed over. Things the filmmakers couldn't flat out say are alluded to with grace.
The focus in romantic films is on the dynamic between the two leads. These two are natural and believable. They tease, flirt, fight, and stonewall like old friends. There is both warmth and weariness in their interaction, as though they'd grown comfortable with each other through the years. Chemistry is hard to fake in the movies, as scores of lesser romances will attest to. Diggs and Lathan are believable together, but I have to give a shout out to their younger selves, who did a great job as well. The pace of the relationship stalls occasionally; there are slightly too many setbacks. But after having seen a few romantic comedies in the past, I have learned not to get too hung up on the ups and downs. They are rarely realistic, usually contrived, and ultimately meaningless. The bottom line is whether the leads can hold your attention. Diggs and Lathan are worthy of the screen time they're given.
Supporting the leads is a better-than-expected cast. The cornerstones are perfectly cast: Mos Def as Dre's sidekick, Queen Latifah as Sydney's gal pal, with Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe as the hapless substitute lovers. Although these characters have predetermined parts to play, they manage a level of depth not typically found in the genre. There are some unique twists as well. Kodjoe does not play a staid accountant with allergies. Parker is not shrill, shallow, or wrong for Dre in the slightest.
Romantic comedy is but one layer in Brown Sugar. The context is hip hop music and they do it right, all the way down to details like Slick Rick rhyming in the Bronx. There are interviews with some of the greats, cameos galore, and authentic characterizations of some of hip hop's identity issues. One of the funniest bits I've seen in awhile is the hip hop Dalmatians, posers of such magnitude that you'll be longing for Milli Vanilli to come back. "Yo mama? That ho is a ho, man!" The genuine love of music is so integral to Brown Sugar that I found myself recalling a love of hip hop that I'd forgotten.
The hip hop core demands a great soundtrack, and this one lives up. Songs appropriated by film somehow sound richer than they ever have before. The groove is continuous, and on at least one occasion I was vibrated out of my seat by subharmonic BASS. This is where bass originated and they don't mess around.
Rounding out the overall excellence is a stellar transfer and a fine package of extras. The picture is pristine, with deep blacks (hey, no racial jokes now) and saturated color (I warned you…). There was minor edge enhancement, if any. As time goes on, more and more transfers will be of reference quality, and this one is very close.
The extras are worthy additions. The deleted scenes are great, complete with commentary. The music videos are a natural fit. The true star is the commentary by director Rick Famuyiwa and editor Dirk Westervelt. Brown Sugar is a good time and the commentary matches it. These two lay out some of their decisions, point out amusing bits about the extras and sets, grouse about the MPAA, and occasionally razz each other with good natured banter. The love of hip hop is reinforced with the respect of the filmmakers. This commentary makes me want to hear more; hard to accomplish after nearly two hours of words.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only mystery in Brown Sugar is why these two never hooked up. Their desire for each other is apparent to everyone. They even break romantic comedy convention and steal some moments with each other, which makes their separation more frustrating. When the mystery is finally revealed, it is so trite and blasé that I felt cheated for investing so much in the relationship.
The hip hop Dalmatians are really annoying. But that's a good thing really, you gotta check these guys out.
Many of the subplots were derivative of other romantic comedies, and it cheapened this effort. Brown Sugar is such a fresh take on the genre that I was aggravated by lapses into romantic comedy convention. Why retread when you can forge new ground?
It didn't fit in anywhere else, but there is a truly, truly funny riff on Casablanca that is practically worth the price of admission. All I can say is watching Mos Def pound Taye Diggs with his Casablanca analogy had me in tears of laughter.
This DVD has a lot going for it: humor, romance, music, great acting. It respects the genre of romantic comedy while adding a unique flavor. If you are looking for something fundamentally different from the bedrock romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, this one will frustrate you. But if you are a fan of hip hop or a sucker for romantic comedies, Brown Sugar is just the ticket to sweeten your DVD collection.
The writers have earned the ire of the court for borrowing so heavily from other films. The hip hop authenticity mediates his honor's pique so i'll let you go this time. Diggs and Lathan are commended for their continued fine work. Famuyiwa and Westervelt are commended for an eminently listenable commentary. But the biggest shout goes to Mos Def. I felt you.
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