Everything I’d read in advance of seeing Rick (The Wood) Famuyiwa’s new film suggested that it dealt with its lead character’s lifelong love of hip hop as much as her lifelong love of a childhood friend. She’s an established writer at work on a book about her passion for the music and culture. I happen to be a lover of music myself. More than for any other reason I decided to see this film in the hope that it would serve as a primer to a form I’ve not yet learned to love.
Perhaps that was an unfair expectation to place upon the picture. All things considered, though-a long list of legendary hip hop names appear in the movie’s credits-I don’t think it was. At any rate, Brown Sugar disappoints somewhat both as a music appreciation lesson and as a love story.
Sanaa Lathan stars along with Taye Diggs. In voice over, she relates her memory of witnessing the birth of hip-hop as reflected in her neighborhood by the first appearance of breakdancers and street rappers. Diggs’ character fell for her and the music simultaneously as a young boy. She grew up to be a journalist. He grew up to be a slick record company executive. Although both have made other love connections, the two have remained close. Of the pair, however, only Lathan has remained true to her artistic principles.
Diggs, in contrast, has little by little allowed himself to become part of the process responsible for rap’s commercialization. He looks into his soul one day and realizes that he’s contributed to the corruption of the music he’s always cherished and makes the decision to leave the label and start his own. It’s a decision which doesn’t go over real big with his wife, an ambitious attorney played by Nicole Ari Parker, and one of the first in a series of signs that things might be about to change on the homefront as well.
Meanwhile, Lathan has hooked up with a suave NBA star, played by Boris Kodjoe. He’s good looking, rich, a great cook and romantic. A fairy tale ending seems assured until he makes the mistake of admitting he hasn’t bothered to read her columns. Oh oh, somebody’s not being loved for her mind. Looks like someone else is about to get benched.
Will Lathan and Diggs hook up finally once everyone else is out of the way? Will Diggs discover the diamond in the rough he needs to make his new company a success? Will the movie ever stop telling us how much its characters love hip hop music and start explaining why they do?
Sadly, the answer to that last question is no, and that’s a major omission given how formulaically the film’s other elements are handled. The plot is romantic comedy boilerplate from start to finish and, with the story’s outcome a foregone conclusion, the least the director could have done is throw in a bit of cultural enlightenment to keep the audience occupied while he connects the dots.
Not that “Brown Sugar” isn’t sweet, well intentioned and intermittently funny. The writing is savvier than average in places and the performances are solid across the board. As a smooth talking cabbie with dreams of rap star glory, Mos Def comes close to redeeming the movie single-handedly. His analysis of “Casablanca” ‘s closing scene is among the most hilarious things I’ve seen on screen all year. A little more of that kind of thing, a bit less of the whole “When Harry Met Sally” thing and “Brown Sugar” might have proven a true rapper delight.