Rick Famuyiwa's "Brown Sugar" is a sly and sophisticated romantic comedy with a depth of characterization matched by its appreciation of the world of hip-hop. It's a mainstream movie in the best sense: an all-too-infrequent big-screen depiction of successful, affluent African Americans facing complex personal and professional choices. Pictures like "Barbershop" and "Brown Sugar" provide crucial balance to urban action dramas. Significantly, "Brown Sugar" marks an executive producer debut for Magic Johnson, a pioneer in bringing new, first-class movie theaters to African American communities.
Sanaa Lathan stars as Sidney, a talented pop music writer departing the Los Angeles Times to return to her native New York to become editor of a hip-hop magazine. Hip-hop has been the center of Sidney's life since as a little girl she came upon a bunch of guys performing in a park on a July day in 1984. It is of equal significance that on that day she met a little boy, Dre, who was equally enthralled by this new music, and their shared passion would make them best friends.
Back in New York, Sidney and Dre (Taye Diggs) are glad to see one another again but are feeling awkward, although they long ago decided against taking their friendship to a different level.
Yet Sidney is overcome with an emotional rush (which she instantly denies), since Dre is about to march up the aisle with one of the glamour girls who ordinarily last about a month in his life.
Even so, the two cannot resist seeking one another's support, especially since Dre is becoming increasingly unhappy with his high-paying job at a record company--his boss is intent on trying to mainstream hip-hop. Not only does hip-hop provide a vibrant soundtrack for the film but also a serious subtext. Hip-hop is sacred to Sidney and Dre as an expression of young black experience and aspirations in which they recognize themselves. Traditionally, the mainstream has come to hip-hop and not the other way around, and this is an important moral distinction to Sidney and Dre.
When Dre goes ahead and marries the spectacular-looking Reese (Nicole Ari Parker), Sidney is ripe for the attentions of the similarly striking Kelby (Boris Kodjoe), a basketball star looking to break through as a hip-hop artist. But as Sidney's pal Francine (Queen Latifah), a truth-teller from the get-go, says to Sidney, who is she kidding?
Famuyiwa and co-writer Michael Elliott show persuasively that the bond between Sidney and Dre is so strong and of such duration that they are just plain scared of endangering it. In short, they are overwhelmed by their familiarity with one another as friends and terrified of the unknown territory they would be traversing as lovers. Since they're adults, it's easy to identify with Francine's exasperation over their mutual reticence, but the filmmakers deflect this by wisely presenting Reese and Kelby in the round. Reese is a forthright, successful attorney eager to make work a marriage she rightly feels is becoming overshadowed by her husband's special friendship. Kelby is an intelligent and witty man who loves Sidney and is unafraid of expressing his devotion to her.
"Brown Sugar" is as satisfying as it is sleek, and Famuyiwa inspires carefully nuanced portrayals from his cast, which includes Mos Def as a humorous hip-hop artist who would rather drive a cab than sell out. Indeed, "Brown Sugar" proves as appealing as its title.
MPAA rating: PG 13, for sexual content and language. Times guidelines: The sexual overtones are discreet; the language is blunt but realistic.
Nicole Ari Parker...Reese
A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation of a Heller Highwater/Magic Johnson Entertainment production. Director Rick Famuyiwa. Producer Peter Heller. Executive producer Earvin (Magic) Johnson. Screenplay Michael Elliot and Famuyiwa, from a story by Elliot. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak. Editor Dirk Westervelt. Music Robert Hurst. Music supervisors Barry Cole and topher Covert. Costumes Darryle Johnson. Production designer Kalina Ivanov. Art director David Stein. Set decorator Roberta J. Holinko. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
In general release.