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Brown Sugar

The romantic comedy genre is the most predictable one in Hollywood. It follows the same path that countless predecessors have trod, offering audiences exactly what they expect. It beats down innovation and eliminates
new possibilities. It has so many tropes that a teenager could construct a plot line just by connecting the dots. I was talking with a ninth grader last week, and she correctly predicted the entire narrative of Sweet Home
Alabama, including the conclusion, from just one commercial she had seen. True story.

Predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. It offends critics more than most because we see so many more movies than the average moviegoer; we become inured to the charms because we've seen and heard them many, many times before. So if I sound unimpressed with the new movie Brown Sugar, that's true, but I admit you might enjoy it all the same.

Brown Sugar stars Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs. She's Sidney, a highly successful music critic who's leaving her prestigious gig at the Los Angeles Times to become the editor of an up-and-coming hip-hop magazine. He's Dre, a music executive/producer at a small hip-hop label called Millennium Records. The two grew up together and, as the opening scene points out, fell in love with hip hop at exactly the same moment-- July 18, 1984.

Interestingly, they've never fallen in love with each other, though everyone in the theater knows that'll change in the next two hours. For now, though, they're just very good friends. Very. Dre is engaged to Reese
(Nicole Ari Parker) who's a high-powered lawyer. But at Reese's bridal shower, Sidney demonstrates she knows way more about Dre than Reese ever could.

Oh yes, there's another woman. The genre demands it. You see, there's no conflict or drama if all we're doing is waiting for two people to hook up. The conflict arises from the obstacles in their way, and there's no better obstacle than another person. So Dre has his woman, and Sidney must have her man. He's Kelby (Boris Kodjoe), a good-looking NBA basketball player who showers her with flowers, kindness, and expensive items.

The romantic comedy genre also demands the single sidekick, usually one for each lead. So Sidney's best friend is the pushy Francine (Queen Latifah), while Dre has Chris (Mos Def), who wants to be a rap star but drives a cab for now. It's no coincidence that both supporting stars come out of the hip hop/rap universe (I apologize to all who insist on the differences between hip hop and rap, but that's not the point of this review). Brown Sugar is written by Michael Elliot, who got his start in the hip-hop industry, and this movie is clearly an attempt to say something about how the music has reached the stage it's at now. The movie's prologue features a number of real-life artists talking about the early days of rap and answering the question, "when did you first fall in love with hip hop?" As the film goes on, it tries to connect the history of the music to Dre and Sidney's history. This is certainly the most interesting aspect of Brown Sugar (the not-so-subtle critique of the music business is funny and pointed), but it gets lost along the way. The genre insists on total fealty to the simple question of how Sidney and Dre fulfill their destiny and get married. All other plot developments must be banished.

Brown Sugar does have two surprises, though--one pleasant and one not-so. The pleasant surprise is Taye Diggs's fantastic comic talents. In other movies like Go or The Best Man, he's always been the pretty boy who falls flat on the screen. Not here. He has wonderful timing, and his reaction shots, usually the death of an actor, only provide him more opportunities to shine. There was one moment late in the movie when his line delivery brought down the house. And Diggs is even better looking than ever, if the vocal female reactions in my screening are to be believed.

The disappointing surprise is Sanaa Lathan's uninspired performance. She burst onto the scene with Love and Basketball (one of the better romantic comedies of the last few years) with a wonderful portrayal. Here, her Sidney seems boring and bored. I don't know if it's the ponderous voice-over she's forced to spout or the parade of questionable fashion decisions, but she doesn't shine like she did in that earlier movie. So there's no spark in her scenes, no reason to care if she finally gets together with Dre.

Most of the other actors fulfill their narrative roles without ever transcending them. Only Mos Def makes you sit up and notice that he's pretty funny. Rick Famuyiwa's direction does what it has to do (we even
have the gratuitous Central Park scene) without much flair. He has a thing for freeze frames and jump cuts, but I couldn't figure out why.

Sorry if this sounds like I'm bored of it all. I had a good time in the theater (walked out with the proverbial smile on my face), but writing about Brown Sugar just reminds me of how mediocre it is. If you need a date
movie this weekend, it's not a bad choice. At least you'll know what you're getting.  

J. Robert Parks 10/7/2002



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