When Brown Sugar hit theaters exactly ten years ago this week, three of my closest friends called me and insisted I needed to go see it, like, pronto. “Ohhhh my gosh,” they each gushed. “The main character reminds me so much of you.” Because no one has ever said anybody in any play, book, sitcom, musical or movie has ever even hinted at being like me, and because I was hearing it from one trusted source after the other, I was intrigued.
When I finally did see it, I knew why: I am the real-life Sidney Shaw. She’s a writer and editor (just like me) passionate about hip-hop (like I was), living in a brownstone in Brooklyn (which is my dream) and determined to use her voice to contribute to something meaningful (bingo! Me too!) Now, the similarities unfortunately stop with the whole love triangle between the gorgeous best friend and the Black Adonis basketball player, but I connected with the story line and the characters in a big way. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, right alongside The Five Heartbeats, Clueless, The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer.
In the decade since it premiered, there haven’t been many movies that have spoken to me as much as Brown Sugar has, black, white or otherwise. I love a Tyler Perry flick like the next girl, but this captured and played back on the big screen the same things I was and still am grappling with: My love/hate relationship with hip-hop, which has purposely been wrung of any morsel of creativity and originality, being a girl who grew up on and adored the music but despised how boxed in and objectified women have become in it, reengineering the platform that has been over-commercialized but has so much potential to empower younger generations. It was so bad I couldn’t even go out because the lyrics would insult me right out there on the dance floor. I was a real downer at the club there for a while.
Obviously, it was much deeper than just having Taye Diggs and Mos Def, two of my celebrity crushes, together on one screen—le swoon, le pant—but I think a lot of people dismissed Brown Sugar as being Love and Basketball remixed, particularly because it was a Sanaa Lathan-as-good-girl two-fer. And, on the surface, it did smack of just another formulaic romantic comedy: boy and girl tussle over their obvious love for one another, boy and girl discover what the people in the audience have known since the opening credits rolled, boy and girl bumble through a chuckle-worthy relationship obstacle course, boy and girl finally give up the ghost and get together.
Sometimes you’ve gotta spoon feed people what they don’t even know they need to know, and the writers managed to weave something deeper in between the do-si-do of affections between Reese and Dre and Dre and Sidney and Sidney and Kelby. There was couple love aplenty, but the story line also lifted up love of community. Love of art. Love of the dreams that get beat down when reality pulls us in one direction and starry-eyed idealism tugs us in another, demonstrated when Dre compromised his roots to hone a career peddling aluminum foil hip-hop—clearly inspired by what’s on constant repeat over radio airwaves. And love among black women because between Sidney and Reese, there’s no sleazy, tricked-out heffa to boo and hiss, no villainous, one-dimensional character to zero in on and throw catty remarks at from the comfort of our cushy spectator seating. (Though I do like those too, from time to time.)
Yes indeedy, there’s some heavy stuff all wrapped up in a nice, candy-coated, unassuming package. With black films still clamoring for mainstream recognition and the kind of high-velocity financing that generates real income and cyclical opportunities for more producers, writers, directors and actors, it is, for me, one of our better love stories in recent memory. I liked Love Jones, I liked Love and Basketball, I liked The Inkwell, but a full decade later, there’s a special place in my DVD rotation for Brown Sugar. I’ll keep on living vicariously through Sidney Shaw’s fictional life until I can recreate it for myself on the real. And I’ll definitely keep watching because to me, it’s a classic.