Hip Hop at 50

20 years later, ‘Brown Sugar’ is still helping fans fall in love

When did you fall in love with this classic hip-hop film?

It’s 2002 and I’m 16 years old. It’s a mild Saturday night in Jackson, Mississippi, and I put on my too-big 569 Levi jeans, making sure the waistband is a few inches below the top of my boxers. I grab the Ralph Lauren polo shirt my mom got me on sale at Dillard’s, and throw it on. My Jordans are clean, any scuff marks scrubbed away with a toothbrush just to make sure. I spritz on Curve cologne (from the sample bottle) for added effect. I’m about to take my first date to the movies.

We’re going to see Brown Sugar.

Written by Michael Elliot and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, I have fond memories of the film, and not just because my date went well. The movie tackled so much in so little time: the commercialization of the hip-hop industry, from labels to journalism; insecurities about relationships with best friends; and a surprisingly nuanced approach to what happens when relationships fall apart. The film, which turns 20 on Tuesday, also ages gracefully, thanks to performances that absolutely sing. Mos Def and Queen Latifah steal the show with their banter. Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs’ chemistry is electric, and they pull off something that every successful rom-com needs: a singularly brilliant scene. The result is a film that broke through as a standout in the Black rom-com canon and is even better two decades later.

In the fall of 2002, Jay-Z, Nelly and Eminem were the world’s biggest rappers with 50 Cent on the horizon. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, were about to embark on their third straight championship season. And Hollywood was at the tail end of its Black rom-com golden years. Love Jones, the jazzy flick about a writer who fell in love with a photographer, came out in 1997. The Best Man, about a reunion among friends that falls apart, came out in 1999, the same year the coming-of-age story The Wood was released. But by 2002, Hollywood seemed less interested in making as many Black rom-coms as in years past.

Brown Sugar, however sneaked by. The movie was the brainchild of Elliot, a New York native who had moved to Los Angeles to break into Hollywood. He cut his teeth as a journalist at The Source (he even produced a now-infamous 1995 awards show) and as a DJ at Hot 97, before turning his attention to the screen. A fan of movies such as When Harry Met Sally, he envisioned a romantic comedy featuring Black professionals. One day, he heard Mary J. Blige’s “Seven Days” and it all came together for him.

Sanaa Lathan stars in Brown Sugar, a 2002 romantic comedy that features hip-hop, love and workplace relationships.

“She had a line about, ‘And then we made love. And then what am I going to do?’ And that was my inspiration,” Elliot told Andscape. “I went to this coffee shop. I had a piece of paper, and the movie just came to me, and I just wrote out the structure and the story.”

Elliot’s script would end up on an unusually fast track. He wrote the screenplay in a month, and dropped it off at Magic Johnson Entertainment, a company run by the former NBA champion, who had a deal with Twentieth Century Fox at the time. Three hours later, he got a call from Charles Murray (True Story, Luke Cage, Sons of Anarchy) — then a low-level creative at Johnson’s company. Murray loved the idea and vowed to get it in front of the right people. Seven days after Elliot submitted the script, Twentieth Century Fox purchased the film.

After a few years of development and delays, the final version of Brown Sugar would take shape. The film centers on two lifelong friends, hip-hop fans, and young professionals who can’t seem to shake the feelings they have for each other, no matter how hard they try. And like the perfect verse over a dope beat, the various elements of the movie came together to create something memorable.

The lead characters, Dre and Sidney, were portrayed by Diggs and Lathan. “Those were literally the actors that I had in mind when writing the script,” Elliot recalled.

The pair were part of a revolving list of actors in the rom-com boom alongside Morris Chestnut, Gabrielle Union, Nia Long, Omar Epps and others. Diggs had already starred in How Stella Got Her Groove Back in 1998. Lathan starred in one of the most beloved Black romances, Love & Basketball in 2000. And the two appeared in The Wood and The Best Man together. The experience helped. Brown Sugar rests on Dre and Sidney’s chemistry. Dre is lighthearted and carefree, and tries to play it cool and maintain control for most of the film. Lathan, on the other hand, is the buttoned-up professional, hyper-aware of an industry that wants to devalue her contributions and ability to elevate her career. The two tap-dance on the line between best friends and romantic partners, allowing the escalating sexual tension to linger in every scene.

Queen Latifah (left) and Mos Def (right) both play key characters in the movie Brown Sugar.

While the romantic tension between Sidney and Dre drives the film, the rest of the cast make Brown Sugar special. Mos Def (an aspiring rapper named Cavi) and Queen Latifah (Sidney’s best friend Francine) have their own dynamic on-screen interactions, especially once Cavi develops a crush on Francine. Boris Kodjoe plays NBA star Kelby Dawson, who tries to woo Sidney, while Kodjoe’s real-life wife Nicole Ari Parker stars as Reese, a successful entertainment lawyer and Dre’s fiancée. Then there’s the Hip-Hop Dalmatians, an interracial rap duo that’s a parody of all of the simplistic buffoonery that can dominate popular music. The two men, Ren and Ten, played by Erik Weiner and Reg Wyns, are outrageous and pitch-perfect. While scenes about the commercialization of hip-hop can easily become didactic, Ren and Ten’s antics — which seem at least half-improvised — accompanied by the ridiculous in-movie song “The Ho is Mine,” made their scenes some of the most referenced and repeated by Brown Sugar fans.

Ren and Ten also play into the film’s larger commentary on hip-hop, and the way the genre is woven into the plot is masterful. The film’s opening scenes include interviews with hip-hop heavyweights such as Common and Fab 5 Freddy; Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh team up for a freestyle; and Mos Def raps the movie’s title song over Kanye West’s beats. Moreover, Dre’s love/hate relationship with hip-hop parallels and drives his love for Sidney, and his quest for something real. It’s the same way Mos Def’s character Chris opens himself to the possibility of signing a record deal and partnering with “the man” to get his music to the masses. Hitting on all aspects of the culture, Brown Sugar even highlights hip-hop journalism.

In 2002, I was knee-deep in collecting issues of Vibe, XXL and The Source. I wanted to be Elliott Wilson, who was the editor-in-chief of XXL or Danyel Smith, who was the editor-in-chief at Vibe when Brown Sugar came out. Watching Lathan play someone who essentially had their jobs and watching the grind, the concerts, the long writing nights just confirmed it was the life I wanted.

“Hip-hop journalism got me off the streets,” Wilson said, adding that he launched a hip-hop magazine in the late 1980s called KRUSH. “I’ve always had a passion for hip-hop journalism and the industry and I wanted that [to show] here.”

Even while it’s chock-full of famous cameos, good music, and witty banter, the movie never loses sight of the love story. And for romantic comedies to enter cult classic status, they need the aha moment. The one scene that elevates it from a fun flick to an unforgettable one. Brown Sugar has that scene, thanks to Diggs.

Taye Diggs (left) and Nicole Ari Parker (right) starred in the 2002 movie Brown Sugar.

Near the end of the film, Dre learns that his wife, Reese, is having an affair. So he decides to confront her at a restaurant while she’s on a date. He’s drunk. Sidney is embarrassed. Reese is mortified. Her date is confused. And Dre orders a bottle of champagne “to celebrate … my divorce!” Diggs delivers the line like a celebratory song as he clinks a wine glass. I distinctly remember the theater erupting, as they must have across the country because that scene has been repeated in Black spaces for two decades.

Rom-coms often age poorly due to the male-leaning scripts and stories that ask little of the men by way of accountability or true character growth. Brown Sugar, though, holds Dre’s choices to the fire. After Dre and Sidney catch his ex on the date, Dre tries to hook up with Sidney, but she rebuffs him, telling him what we were all thinking: He’s just acting out because he’s hurt. And when Dre and Reese meet up after their divorce is finalized, we get a rare, realistic look at two people whose marriage fell apart but who can still be friends. We also hear Reese’s side, which is reasonable. Dre has to spend time figuring himself out, finding his own career happiness (thanks to Cavi’s success) before coming back around to be good enough for Sidney.

“[Dre] was flawed in that he really was the A&R [artists and repertoire] dude who had lost his way,” Elliott said. “He became part of the machine and he had to own that. He needed closure in his marriage and we needed to see them shoot pool together. We needed to see him worthy of Sid.”

After watching Brown Sugar for the first time, my date and I left the theater on our way to O’Charley’s for dinner, beaming about the film we’d just watched. I saw a future that felt like it could be mine, one where people who loved hip-hop could grow up to be full-fledged professionals in fly suits who can change the music’s trajectory while still finding love and happiness. My first date led to a high school romance that eventually fizzled out. But 20 years later, Brown Sugar is still here, playing in the background of my mind like a beat I can’t stop nodding my head to.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.