How 'Brown Sugar' Destroyed the Taboo of Black Love in Cinema
We talk to director Rick Famuyiwa about his unapologetically black romantic comedy classic.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of Brown Sugar, a film about childhood friends whose love blossoms in the warm embrace of hip-hop. Directed by Dope's Rick Famuyiwa, the 2002 romantic comedy grapples with the growing popularity (and appropriation) of rap around that time. Though hip-hop is arguably the most popular music of today—even Biggie songs are used as commercial jingles—in 2002, the genre was still a uniquely black experience.
I love Brown Sugar because it had all the fun of a rom-com while also remaining unapologetically black. Famuyiwa was part of a group of directors, writers, and producers who were responsible for putting black intimacy on the screen, front and center—a revolutionary notion at the time. While black rom-coms have never received much love from critics, they've been immeasurably influential on the culture, birthing a genre that lives on in shows like Insecure and Atlanta.
On a phone call from Los Angeles, Famuyiwa told me that Brown Sugar was initially pitched to him as "When Harry Met Sally, in the world of hip-hop." Famuyiwa was looking for his next project after success with 1999's The Wood and was drawn to the premise: Sidney (Lathan) is the editor-in-chief of hip-hop magazine XXL, and Dre (Diggs) is a successful A&R executive at a major record label. Their fairytale romance plays out on hip-hop's biggest stages: in music reviews and rap concerts and radio interviews with Angie Martinez. "I loved films like When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall, but these were very specific, white Manhattan experiences," he said. "You don't see a single person of color anywhere, but somehow these films are universal. As a filmmaker and creator, I was frustrated with that idea."
The notion that love could exist in environments that did not include Meg Ryan was apparently a novel concept to Hollywood—which isn't surprising, given the industry's history. From 1930 to 1968, the film industry was governed by a set of "moral guidelines," including a rule that forbade the depiction of "sex relationships between the white and black races." The rule removed black actors from consideration for lead roles in romantic films, even when the movie was based on source material that called for black actors.
The Hays Code's anti-miscegenation clause was removed in 1956, but it still rendered black love and intimacy nonexistent on the screen. In 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Sidney Poitier's character hardly ever touches his white sweetheart; they kiss only once, in the background of a scene. Twenty-three years later, Whoopi Goldberg told Jet magazine that after she assumed the role originally intended for Cher in 1987's Fatal Beauty, a sex scene between her and actor Sam Elliott was cut from the film. "If Sam Elliott had put some money on the table after the love-making scene, it would still have been there," Goldberg said.
As is characteristic of black American culture, in that void lemonade was made. Love stories featuring characters and storylines that better represented black Americans flourished in the 90s with films like Boomerang (1992) and The Inkwell (1994). "It was a really interesting time, because the black romantic comedy became a genre unto itself," Famuyiwa said.
During the black rom-com boom, we got George Tillman Jr.'s Soul Food in 1997, Malcolm Lee's The Best Man in 1999, and Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball in 2000. These films featured complex characters that found love in intimately familiar, black places: Brown Sugar within the world of hip-hop; Love Jones in Chicago's 90s spoken word scene; The Inkwell in Martha's Vineyard's historically black Oaks Bluff community.
"Love stories happen in communities outside of just the Upper West Side of Manhattan," Famuyiwa said. With Brown Sugar, it was exciting for him to "tell a story that wasn't so centered on a specific part of white Manhattan [but rather] in Brooklyn and the Bronx."
As Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin concluded, "A 'romantic comedy' is inherently a white film," given the type of films around which the language was created. And romantic comedies remain one of the most segregated genres to this day, precluding many black-led films from critical consideration. In 2014, New York Magazine created a list of the best romantic comedies since 1989's When Harry Met Sally. The list did not include one black-led film, noting, "While African-American rom-coms, as exemplified in films like The Best Man and Waiting to Exhale … have thrived during this time, we couldn't agree on any titles we felt were strong enough to warrant inclusion on this list."
Given the Hays Code's legacy, it's not surprising that two white dude film critics could not step outside of their privileged cinematic bubbles long enough to acknowledge, for example, the cultural significance of movies like How Stella Got Her Groove Back or Poetic Justice, yet determined that 50 First Dates warranted inclusion despite beginning "with a walrus projectile vomiting." But as black culture continues to dominate pop culture, the stories of people of color become more universal. "If you tell Brown Sugar's story today, it is When Harry Met Sally, because right now, hip-hop music is pop music," Famuyiwa said.
He has a point. These films were precursors to the brilliance of Issa Rae's Insecure and Donald Glover's Atlanta, where the jokes, betrayals, and yearnings are all uniquely situated within the black experience. And according to a report by Nielsen, more than half of Insecure's and Atlanta's viewers are "non-African American."
Still, black rom-coms from the era spoke a unique language, firmly rooted in black culture. So when I first watched Brown Sugar, in high school, and heard Dre tell Sidney that she is "the perfect verse over a tight beat," I knew, without question, that the brother was in love.
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