Brown Sugar

“So ... when’d you fall in love with hip hop?” Sidney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan) pops this question to her interviewees from jump street, as she has throughout her 10-year career as a music journalist.

Looking back, Shaw’s answer to her own question is July 18, 1984. That’s when 10-year-old Sidney strains up to tiptoe on her skinny legs to peep over a gathering crowd and check out the breakers, poppers and lockers getting down on brown cardboard laid on the hot Brooklyn pavement. Track-suited bodies make gymnastic magic, invisibly tagging the blue sky with their signature moves. And just beyond, the birth of hip hop’s second coming in one tight trinity — Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick and Dana Dane — street jam, rapping their stories in clever rhymes.

Young Dre Ellis watches the happenings from his bleacher catbird seat. And soon he catches young Sidney’s eye. That look becomes an invitation. As the two-ring hip-hop circus of break dancing and rap story-hour doesn’t stop but goes on, something besides hip hop dawns: A few steps above the scene, the two are sitting together.

Sidney and Dre (Taye Diggs) are sitting in the bleachers not a tree — and even as the years roll on, there’s no k-i-s-s-i-n-g. There’s love. And there’s marriage — but not to Sidney’s advantage. Dre, now a designer-suited executive for a major rap record label, falls for a fine, fair-skinned buppie lawyer, Reese Marie Wiggins (Nicole Ari Parker), and takes her for his wedded wife. And Sidney gets more than an interview from a light-skinned basketball star, Kelby (Boris Kodjoe).

Romantic comedy is high in the mix. But director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) visually fades in issues of color and class, and assumptions of power. And the sweetening of Brown Sugar’s love plots more or less successfully echoes screenwriter Michael Elliot’s (Like Mike) fable of hip hop’s loss of innocence and its sold-out marriage to notorious big business.

The moral? Lauryn Hill rapped it: “Hip hop” — like love — “started in the heart ...”

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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