The 1990s and early aughts were a good time for black movies. From Boyz n The Hood to Menace II Society to What’s Love Got To Do With It to sleeper classics like The Wood, almost every year we got several dope black movies that showed us some version of blackness that existed in our communities. In 1997, during my senior year of high school, Love Jones dropped, and it would (deservedly) become the go-to romance movie for many of us—though not me, and I’ll explain why.
Written and directed by Theodore Witcher, Love Jones featured poets, bohemian homies, and nights at Chicago’s Wild Hare. It focused on the kind of black love where you discussed love and deep things and somebody always had a drum nearby.
And there was Nia Long and “A Blues for Nina,” and Larenz Tate as Darius Lovehall, a Renaissance man with proclivities for music, poetry, art, photography, etc. Darius represented the kind of smart black dude we hadn’t seen on film, and he represented a lot of what I thought I wanted to be, especially during my college years, which came on the heels of Love Jones’ release. While poetry cafes existed and writing bad poetry to win the affections of women is a method as old as time, nearly every dude I know became a poet and I’m sure some of that is because of Love Jones. Love Jones isn’t my favorite black love movie but I can entirely understand why it would be for a lot of us who came of age or were already grown in the ‘90s.
For me, though, that title goes squarely to Brown Sugar, the 2002 movie written by Michael Elliott and Rick Famuyiwa—who also directed and is responsible for one of my other faves, 1999’s The Wood. While Love Jones turned me into a temporary poet and inadvertently spearheaded my love for writing, I was then and am now a hip-hop head at heart. I’m one of those people who might tell you that hip hop is my first love—no matter how corny it sounds—and absolutely mean it.
Brown Sugar is funny, relevant as hell to the hip-hop industry at the time, entertaining, chock-full of dope music, features NBA players that rap, cameos from tons of rappers, Hot97, New York City, etc. And while Taye Diggs attempting to rap in the park was cringeworthy, he and Sanaa Lathan had amazing chemistry in the movie and nearly everything else hip hop-centric felt real authentic and period-appropriate; even the shot at Rawkus Records, when Simon (played by Wendell Pierce) told Dre (Diggs) that he wasn’t trying to keep it real, he was trying to keep it profitable, and if Dre wanted to keep it real he needed to leave Rawkus Records.
The Hip Hop Dalmatians take the shenanigans to a whole new level on screen as well, especially considering the nature of commercial hip hop in the early ‘00s. A gimmicky group constructed to sell millions of records was not an absurdity; what Ren and Ten represented was both comical and all-too-familiar to most of us living and breathing that hip-hop life. And Mos Def and Queen Latifah, the two rappers in the movie (rappers taking over movie/TV roles became a thing) actually added value because they’re both perfect in their roles. Mos played the up-and-coming rapper who Dre decided to stake his career on. It made sense.
Professionally, seeing Dre and Syd Shaw (Sanaa Lathan) making their way in hip hop without being rappers—Dre as the exec and Syd as the journalist-turned-editor in chief of XXL—felt like what I wanted my life to look like. I wasn’t going to make it as a rapper, but I could participate in the culture in other ways, and becoming a writer and devoting significant amounts of space to hip hop, like Syd did, is what became my own personal journey.
Brown Sugar, as funny as it is, is a tale of love between Dre and Syd, who represent hip hop to each other. They fell in love with each other through hip hop and it’s the cornerstone of their friendship and life. And just as folks argue all the time about the music, hip hop always finds its way home, like Dre and Syd do by the end, even if the ebbs and flows of trying to mesh the worlds of real hip hop and the business of hip hop get in the way and open them up to new relationships and love.
When you factor in the soundtrack, including the songs by Blackalicious that didn’t make the officially released soundtrack (“Make Me Feel That Way,” and “Day One” from the Blazing Arrow album are perfectly placed), you get a movie about love and hip hop done in an authentic way, even if it’s a little bit corny in parts. Brown Sugar speaks directly to who I was and who I wanted to be in the early ‘00s. For that reason, it will always be the GOAT black love movie for me because hip hop, you’re the love of my life.
Yes, yes y’all.