A Flavorful Romance
The romantic dramedy Brown Sugar has a lot in common with 24 Hour Party People. Both films are stories about people whose love for music is so much a part of their lives, they'd gladly put themselves on the backburner, as long as only the finest examples of their passions are heard. Still, Brown Sugar takes on a much different tone than the kinetic Party People. It's a film about two people who grew up with hip hop, became friends with hip hop, and, at this next stage in their lives, learn to fall in love with hip hop.
Brown Sugar emerges as more than just an amusing little gem; director Rick Famuyiwa has created a film about real people, people who don't inhabit worlds that only exist in the movies and whose emotions aren't at the mercy of the screenwriter. There's as much soul in Brown Sugar itself as in the music it contains.
Lifelong friends Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) first fell in love with the hip-hop sound as kids, and growing up with that likeness earned them both careers in the business. Dre is a record producer, and Sidney is a magazine editor, their lives set except for that one last element: romance. But as Sidney starts to question whether or not it's time to decide if they're "just friends," Dre announces his marriage to lawyer Reese (Nicole Ari Parker).
This bombshell surprises Sidney, but her friendship with Dre remains intact and even a little closer. Then Dre starts to have second thoughts about the paths he's taken and sets about getting the best out of life, starting with leaving his sell-out label and taking an up-and-coming artist (Mos Def) into his own label, Jerry Maguire-style, -- a decision Reese doesn't take lightly. When Sidney starts a relationship with a basketball star (Boris Kodjoe), both friends find themselves pondering their choices, their current positions, and whether going ahead with what they've got now means having to abandoned the music that brought them together in the first place.
Fumayiwa firmly establishes these characters in a realistic atmosphere (you know, as opposed to the world where Jennifer Lopez can't get a date) and lets their own feelings play a major part in how the story goes. Dre and Sidney are great friends who can't get past that point where they realize the undeniable chemistry between them, a plot element that could spell disaster in the wrong hands but, thankfully, goes the more convincing route of leading the viewer through the ups, downs, and near-misses in their relationship. There's nary a caricature to be found, allowing the smart screenplay by Famuyiwa and Michael Elliot to provide the sharp dialogue, fleshed-out characters, and convincing reasons for the two leads to come together after un-corny complications keep them apart.
Everything in Brown Sugar works, thanks to the acting and the music. The versatile Taye Diggs and the ravishing Sanaa Lathan deliver fine performances as two friends at a crossroads in their lives. Kodjoe and Parker do well at keeping their roles from turning into cookie-cutter versions of the "other man/other woman" mainstays of the genre. Queen Latifah pops in once in a while as Sidney's cousin/best friend, but the most impressive performance in the picture belongs to Mos Def. Some might say he's just the rap version of Cuba Gooding Jr. from Jerry Maguire, but this artist/poet has a talent for acting, which lands him a few nicely done scenes, one of which involves a priceless conversation with Dre about comparing their lives to Casablanca.
And the music! Dre and Sidney almost make it their personal mission to include only the purest sound and the most soulful beats. In that respect, they pack the soundtrack with a line-up of well-done songs. To me, the film wouldn't be as meaningful without its great music.
Yes, the comedy and the drama could be balanced more evenly, and a scene or two left on the cutting room floor to thin out some visible padding, but these are minor quibbles. If you're in the mood for feel-good fluff, check out Sweet Home Alabama or Two Weeks Notice. But if you want a little meat with your meal, choose the soulful Brown Sugar.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.)
Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "PG-13" for sexual content and language.