July 1984 was an important time in the lives of Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan): That summer they met on a street corner in New York City and fell in love--with hip-hop music. Fifteen years later Dre is a successful music executive for Millennium Records while Sidney is an esteemed music writer for XXL. Although both are involved in relationships with different people they have a tendency to turn to one another when the chips are down. So when Millennium enters a recording deal with a gimmicky rap duo called Ren and Ten but refuses to sign Chris (Mos Def) a talented MC Dre becomes more disillusioned with his career and turns to Sidney rather than his wife Reese (Nicole Ari Parker) for support. "I'm tired of making bullshit and calling it hip-hop " he tells Sidney before announcing his decision to start his own label Brown Sugar. But it's not long before Dre and Sidney's significant others become threatened by their friendship and everything comes to a head. You may be pleasantly surprised that although a love story is at the heart of Brown Sugar the film is never sappy or sentimental.
Diggs is well cast as Dre; it's nice to see his character evolve and ultimately figure out what is important to him. Lathan's character Sidney on the other hand is a mystery. We know what she does for a living and the logistics of how she got there but we don't know anything else about her. The sparks weren't exactly flying between Diggs and Lathan either and while the events that shaped the characters' lives and relationship are well documented their emotional connection goes largely unexplained. As for the supporting cast Mos Def as the budding entertainer Chris who's a cab driver by day probably conveyed the most realistic and down-to-earth character. I was surprised to find out he wasn't actually an MC it came so naturally to him. His friendship with Dre was probably one of the most endearing in the film. Queen Latifah has a small role as Sidney's tell-it-like-it-is cousin but she doesn't get much opportunity to expand her character.
Don't be put off by the trailer for Brown Sugar which markets the film as belonging to the Two Can Play That Game-genre--so much so that I actually thought I was at the wrong screening when I saw it. The film starts off with nice black-and-white documentary-type footage of well-known hip-hop personalities including Big Daddy Kane Russell Simmons and Jermaine Dupri describing the moment they fell in love with hip-hop. The interviews are part of a book that Sidney is working on and she narrates exerpts from it to underline developments in her relationship with Dre. In his directorial debut Rick Famuyiwa who also co-wrote the project with Michael Elliot uses some interesting techniques including 3/4 split screens and freeze-frames. Some long scenes have also been edited in a jagged style but the camerawork is never overdone.