Rated PG-13, 109 min. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Starring Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Nicole Ari Parker, Ralph E. Tresvant, Mos Def, Boris Kodjoe, Queen Latifah.
Brown Sugar's opening credits play out to the Roots' “Act Too (Love of My Life),” with its thrumming, soulful chorus of “Hip-hop, you the love of my life.” It's a perfect complement to what's happening onscreen: Flash interviews with some of hip-hop's leading artists and innovators, like Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and the Roots' ?uestlove, all riffing on the moment they fell hard for hip-hop. Curiously, the credits mark both the film's high and low point, depending on the audience. For hip-hop enthusiasts (and anyone, really, who can recall finding a sound that felt like finding a home), the minutes-long tribute is a soul-stirrer. For a general audience, though, that trips over names like Talib Kweli and Ghostface Killah with the same perplexity as a Tolstoyian Grinevich, Dmitrievich, or Ivanovich, the credits are probably a mystery. That said, Brown Sugar settles shortly into a pleasant, if generic, romantic comedy -- a boon to the general audience, a bust to those looking for a strength of spirit equivalent to that of the opening. As with the real-life artists, Lathan's music journalist Sidney poses the same question to each of her subjects: When did you fall in love with hip-hop? For Sidney, that moment came in 1984, when she heard Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh crew freestyle in a Bronx playground. Not coincidentally, that's also when she first met Dre, who became her best friend and fellow hip-hop devotee. All grown up, Dre (Diggs) is an exec at Millennium Records, a company too concerned with the bling-bling, and less so with producing good music. Still, Dre trudges listlessly ahead, mostly because the big bucks he makes keep his fiancée happy. Further complicating his life is the ongoing push and pull between Sidney and him -- best friends determined to stay platonic, yet plagued by a lingering “what if?” The audience of course, knows the answer (punctuated by a frustrated “duh,” as the two circle and sniff, yet maddeningly fail to connect). The cast is a uniformly charming lot. Rapper and stage actor (last seen in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Top Dog/Underdog) Mos Def is a scrunch-shouldered, rascally delight, stealing the show despite a smallish role as one of Dre's clients and the self-described “Peter Lorre” to Sid and Dre's Bergman & Bogart. His shuffle-footed flirtation with the older, physically imposing Queen Latifah is irresistible. The same can't be said for the whole of the film; the script (by Michael Elliot and director Famuyiwa) vacillates between smart, snappy dialogue and wheezing plot points, between inspired hip-hop homilies and creaky romantic-comedy constructs. With all its emphasis on beat, Brown Sugar can't maintain a steady one, yet when it finds it, the film surely soars.
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