Brown Sugar

One of the paradoxes of rap-related cinema is that the films that most powerfully embody the energy and attitude of hip-hop—Deep Cover, Ghost Dog, Menace II Society, Do The Right Thing—tend to have nothing to do with rap music. Conversely, films that directly address the genre often end up representing its culture and art about as well as a Chunky A cassingle. That's the case with Brown Sugar, a slick, seductive romantic comedy that's ostensibly about love and hip-hop, but whose sleek texture is more quiet-storm R&B than True School rap. Yet another look at what it's like to be young, black, and ridiculously good-looking, Brown Sugar is the latest from 29-year-old Rick Famuyiwa, who, with Sugar's gushing discussion of rap's good old days and The Wood's rose-tinted look at the '80s, ranks as one of cinema's youngest nostalgia specialists. In a slight variation on his roles in The Wood and The Best Man, Taye Diggs stars as a successful, dashing record executive who tires of his label's commercial aspirations, quits his job, and starts his own label, signing sass-talking cab driver Mos Def as his first act. Sanaa Lathan co-stars as Diggs' best friend, an XXL editor who shares old-school nostalgia sessions, encouragement, and possibly more with Diggs. Are Diggs and Lathan destined to become more than just friends? Will Lathan help the disillusioned Diggs get his groove back? Will sassy Diggs-sidekick Def eventually hook up with extra-sassy Lathan-sidekick Queen Latifah? The answers are seldom in doubt, but a good cast, terrific soundtrack, and genial spirit all help the film go down smoothly. Famuyiwa's formula remains half sitcom and half soap opera, washed down with nostalgia, but he's grown as a visual storyteller. Brown Sugar is smoother and less jumpy than The Wood, though for all its gushy talk of hip-hop and love, it's much too smooth to bother with hip-hop's messy contradictions. But Def's charismatic presence gives it a smattering of credibility, and it's no surprise that he steals the film, in no small part because his irreverent MC is the only major character who doesn't seem to have been imported from an upscale liqueur commercial. It's tempting to imagine what Brown Sugar might have been like with Def in the lead and Diggs relegated to sidekick duty.

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