Saturday, 10 July 2010

A Love Story…for Hip Hop

I was in the process of tabulating the films I’d seen in the last decade (more on that later) and I came across a 2002 gem that’s become criminally forgotten. The film touched on two issues that often get reviewers riled up. Where, they ask, has the good old-fashioned romantic comedy gone? And why, some continue, can’t there a well made and original black film made? The fact that Brown Sugar came about eight years ago and was promptly forgotten makes me wonder if the questions asked are done so in sincerity. Last week when I caught Brown Sugar again it resonated with me much more than it did with my young self. I was moved by the honesty with which Michael Elliot wrote this subtle comedy. It was more than the exploration of a romance between our charismatic leads Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan but it was like Elliot’s own tribute to hip-hop, a music genre that has admittedly lost much of the panache it once held. It almost became a dual throwback, both to hip-hop’s roots and the old romantic comedies of eras long ago with two affable leads, and an eclectic supporting cast.
The story itself is simple; Andre and Sydney have been friends since they were children. With a friendship joined by the rise of hip-hop Andrew becomes a music producer of a morally dubious recording company and Sydney develops into an intuitive writer of a hip-hop magazine. Everyone, but our two leads, is aware of their attraction to each other. But it’s neither a disservice to them, nor the audience, that we must await their inevitable union which acts a contrivance of sorts. One thing that Brown Sugar does with aplomb is avoid shrillness. Nicole Ali Parker and Boris Kodjoe have the dubious job of playing characters who’s single flaw is not being “right” for our leads i.e. not being an avid reader or music lover, respectively. I applaud Elliot and director Rick Famuyiwa for not resorting to the rudimentary to destroy the characters of either. Even though Parker has a plotline that seems as just slightly misogynistic we realise that Elliot is not interesting in creating stereotypes, but real people throughout. Moreover Parker plays her role with such sincerity I always end up feeling for her dilemma as much as that of the two leads. I probably will keep wondering why Sanaa Lathan has not found success. I mentioned her performance in the TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun (the stage incarnation of which earned her a Tony nomination) and she has contributed good, if sometimes rote, work to other films of the genre – Something New (more revolutionary than it gives itself credit for), Love & Basketball (too mawkish for me at times, but ultimately pleasant). However, her work in Brown Sugar is particularly stellar, for me at least. Her chemistry with Taye Diggs (why hasn’t his star risen?) impresses and they could handle the entire film on their shoulders. But they don’t have to.
Interestingly neither of the aforementioned four offers the best thing in Brown Sugar. It is Mos Def (a rapper) and Queen Latifah (another rapper) who provide Brown Sugar with a brand of comic relief that is neither over-the-top nor annoying. Latifah has always been charming, and with a small role she sizzles whenever on screen. But it is Mos Def in particular, oddly one of the best black actors around (see Cadillac Records, Be Kind Rewind, Something the Lord Made). There’s a particular scene that attracts me both as a fan of his and as a movie buff. While berating Andre for his insolence with Sydney he says, 
“I'm not the Humphrey Bogart in this. I'm the Peter Lorre. I'm the sidekick character. You the Humphrey Bogart. You had your opening. You know what I'm saying? She wanted you to stop her from marrying the old dude, but you let it ride, you know? Same thing Bogey did, man. You're the same dude.” 
Kudos, to Elliot for offering us this allusion that’s neither too on-the-nose or too pretentious. What’s more he’s careful to break us from the spell of romanticism to reality as it continues...”
Dre: “Man, don't be dissin' Humphrey Bogart, man.”
Chris: “Why not?”
Dre: “'Cause he's Humphrey Bogart. He's the man. Yo, he was fightin' a war. That's what they did back then.”
Chris: “You know what he needed to do back then? He needed to stop fine-ass Ingrid Bergman from gettin' on the plane with the corny dude. And then, he gonna walk off in the fog with some other dude. Come on, man. With another dude, in the fog? Come on. Two grown men walk off in a fog, you don't know where they goin'? Think about it, man.”
Dre: “You smoke too much grass, man.”
It’s an awareness (and subtle hilarity) that I can’t help but applaud. It’s this awareness that makes Brown Sugar so special, like showing the realism of the music industry where an inspired rapping duo Ren & Ten (the hip-hop Dalmatians, one black with white spots, one white with black spots) burst into a passionate rendition of their latest song “The Ho is Mine”. It’s not that Elliot is mocking current artistes (though his estimations are on point, it's eerie that the track sounds like something we'd hear on the radio). It’s an awareness that everything gets commercialised, Sanaa says astutely “Hip hop was changing, and I didn't want to share.”. I’m no where near as interested in music as I once was, especially hip-hop, but Brown Sugar reminds me of the days when a Lauryn Hill or Common track would make me get all fuzzy inside. Hip-hop has changed, but Brown Sugar isn’t an elegy. It’s a celebration; not only for music lovers, but for fans of good old simplicity. Pity it’s not more remembered, or loved.


Castor said...

Never heard of this movie but I will be sure to check it out if you say this is a romantic comedy actually worth checking out ;)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I guess it really didn't make a splash when it came out. Definitely more than a "stereotypical" romantic comedy though.