Flashback

‘Brown Sugar’ Was More Than a Love Story. It’s an Ode to Black Feminism.

The film, featuring Sanaa Lathan, gifted us a woman coming into her own as a writer, steeped in the womanist tradition

Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs in “Brown Sugar” (2002). Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

When did you fall in love with hip-hop?

“Simplicity provides a fine line between elegance and plainness,” Dre Ellis recites as he reclines on Sidney Shaw’s couch. Sid is shocked that someone, in particular, Dre, has read and memorized her words. It’s the moment where many viewers of Rick Famuyiwa’s classic rom-com Brown Sugar fall in love with Dre — including me. More importantly, it’s the moment when Sid realizes what is missing in her relationship with Kelby, her fiancé: She isn’t being read.

It would be easy to dismiss Brown Sugar, starring Sanaa Lathan as Sid and Taye Diggs as Dre, as your run-of-the-mill rom-com. Released in 2002, the film follows two childhood friends who unite through their love of hip-hop and accidentally fall in love. And ruin 1.5 marriages in the process. Truth be told, that was enough for me. However, Famuyiwa creates a film that is explicitly designed to be visual hip-hop through Sid’s love letter, which also implicitly ties her to legacies of womanism, hip-hop feminism, and Black feminist love practices. This narrative made me love Brown Sugar all the more.

Being a writer is more than a career. It is Sid walking in her purpose and proclaiming her truth, like other Black feminist and womanist writers before her.

Brown Sugar is a familiar enough narrative. Sidney is an editor for hip-hop magazine XXL and her childhood best friend, Dre, is a producer at a company he comes to hate for their declining standards (who can forget Ren and Ten, The Hip-Hop Dalmatians?). Both find their way into their respective careers through their love of music, but things get complicated when Dre gets engaged. Sid works through her feelings about Dre through the metaphor of hip-hop in a letter woven throughout the film as narration.

Writer protagonists are a long-standing trope in romantic comedies. But positioning Sid as a writer in Brown Sugar carries more weight. Sid’s letter signifies that she is an artist in a lineage of Black women artists, in spite of what that may mean for her, which is, at the very least, laying herself bare. Being a writer is more than a career. It is Sid walking in her purpose and proclaiming her truth, like other Black feminist and womanist writers before her. In particular, the genre of narratives told through letters is a form we may associate with womanist writer and theorist Alice Walker, whose epistolary novel The Color Purple was our introduction to womanism. For many, however, Terry McMillan’s novel characters represent Black feminism, as Sid’s cousin and sister-friend, Francine (Queen Latifah), points out when she jokingly compares Sid to a McMillan protagonist.

It’s not a reach. Sid comes across as a serious, independent person, who is wedded to her work, operates in the rational, and is frustrated whenever her emotions don’t align with sense. As she tells Kelby near the film’s end: “I don’t know why your heart doesn’t do what your mind tells it.” What Sid wants is someone who is “on the same page as [her].” She doesn’t believe, and nor should we, that feminism and love are mutually exclusive.

Walker details more about womanism in her collection of prose, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In it, we get the popular quote, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” but other important definitions as well, including, “A black feminist or feminist of color,” and “[a woman who] appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility… and women’s strength.” If this follows, then McMillan as a writer is a womanist based on her nuanced Black woman characters in her novels, which makes Francine’s comparison of Sid to a McMillan character, less harsh, and more welcome.

Patricia Hill Collins discusses how Black women use various modes of expression to “acquir[e] a voice through writing, of breaking silence with language” in Black Feminist Thought, specifically pointing to Celie’s letter writing in The Color Purple. Sid grapples with the process of developing her own voice when she mentions to Kelby how writing her book is different, it’s “more personal.” Through the writing of her book, I Used to Love Him, Sid learns to speak her own personal truth. We see this shine through when she reveals the dedication of her book, “To hip-hop. I used to love you. I still do. And always will,” and in doing so, her love for Dre.

Collins also mentions Ntozake Shange’s choreo-poem, For Colored Girls, as a piece which evokes speaking as the vehicle for liberatory expression, but letters are also important to another of her works, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, in which Shange weaves together letters, recipes for potions, lyrical prose and more to create a unique, quilt-like story about the magic of Black women. Sid embraces this artistic legacy through her own medium in hip-hop journalism when she tells Dre, “[Hip-hop]’s about forward movement, innovation!” The addition of elements like Sid’s letter render this piece of art visual hip-hop. The film is comprised of layers upon layers that, like a quilt, like hip-hop, when stitched together create a harmony of narratives read as one. Hip-hop, like writing, is essential to her self-making, her self-expression, and her liberation. It was never just anything, least of all a luxury. Her letter, then, is documentation of the history and significance of hip-hop, to her personally and to society.

To be read is to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. It is as bell hooks describes in ‘All About Love,’ “When [true love] happens, individuals usually feel in touch with each other’s core identity. Embarking on such a relationship is frightening precisely because we feel there is no place to hide. We are known.”

Hip-hop is more than just the music, in the same way that this film is more than the love story. The sepia tones of the film give me the same feeling of warmth I get from hearing the soundtrack, the backdrop for the b-boy aesthetic. I’m transported when I hear Erykah Badu sing “Love Of My Life.” “Get It Together” by India.Arie feels like a warm beverage on a cold morning after you’ve had your heart broken; the jump cuts are sprinkled throughout like a DJ scratching a record; graffiti is present in the title card. This leaves Sid as the MC, who, through her poetic prose, leads viewers through the narrative — a griot sharing a story. Famuyiwa’s artistic sensibilities of world-building through cuts, tones, and narrative provide a mellow track over which Sid’s letter is laid. As Joan Morgan, mother of hip-hop feminism, says in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “We [hip-hop feminists] need a voice like our music — one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful.” Sid’s voice in Brown Sugar is mixed with delightful layers that come together to help make her narrative voice even more poignant.

Given that writing is often Sid’s fullest expression of self, it’s important for her to be read. To be read is to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. It is as bell hooks describes in All About Love, “When [true love] happens, individuals usually feel in touch with each other’s core identity. Embarking on such a relationship is frightening precisely because we feel there is no place to hide. We are known.”

Dre understands this and meets Sid where she is. It’s the desire to be read which dashes our hopes that Sid and Kelby could be happy together. When Kelby sheepishly admits to not reading Sid’s words, she realizes there is a whole part of her heart that he will not know — not for lack of access, but lack of effort on his part. It’s the desire to be read that is realized when Dre sits on Sid’s couch and recites her own words back to her, revealing that he read her column every Wednesday in the park because it made him feel closer to her. Even before that, when he utters the line, “You are the perfect verse over a tight beat,” Dre knows and acknowledges the liberatory relationship Sid has with words and therefore sees her. As Alice Walker writes in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: “When we have pleaded for understanding, our character has been distorted; when we have asked for simple caring, we have been handed empty inspiration appellations, then stuck in the farthest corner.” There is a desire for Black women to be read, to be legible, for what we are, rather than how society has written us.

The staying power of Sid’s letter is the lovefor Dre, for hip-hop, for herself. Black women have been finding various ways to love in a world that threatens, and often succeeds, in making us small. Despite all odds, we love our brothers and we love our world enough to accept and fight against the expectation that Black women are superheroes and our duty is to save everyone. We love ourselves enough to get down and dirty with the ugliness of life and rise up to create anyway. We love ourselves enough to create and make art. Sidney Shaw reminds us that our labor of honoring our complexity can be as simple as proclaiming our love for that which defines us:

“To hip-hop.”

Ravynn K. Stringfield (@RavynnKaMia) is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. She is a dog mom, new yogi and hazelnut latte enthusiast.

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