Welcome to Love Like This?, a romance column where we, Kathleen Newman-Bremang and Ineye Komonibo, revisit some of the most romantic — or not, in hindsight — scenes in Black film and TV history.
Brown Sugar is a film that, like a good hip-hop song, hits differently depending on what age you are when you experience it. The classic 2002 romantic comedy came out in October almost 20 years ago, and what was once a comforting antidote to a rom-com genre saturated in whiteness with a side of hip-hop nostalgia has now held up as a smart, sexy, exploration of the friends-turned-lovers trope while remaining a sharp meditation on rap music’s mainstream dominance. As kids, watching music journalist turned XXL editor-in-chief Sydney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan) slowly realize when she really fell in love with hip-hop aka her best friend, A&R executive Andre “Dre” Ellis (Taye Diggs) felt like an awakening; a glimpse into the grown up world we only dreamed of and a blueprint of a romance to aspire to. If it wasn’t a love like Syd and Dre’s, we didn’t want it.
Now, watching Brown Sugar as adults, the film is a reclamation of that youthful connection to these characters (and a testament to Diggs and Lathan’s electric chemistry), but also it’s so much more than just "When Harry Met Sally, in the world of hip-hop,” which is how it was pitched to director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope, The Wood). "I loved films like When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall, but these were very specific, white Manhattan experiences," he told Vice in 2017. "You don't see a single person of colour anywhere, but somehow these films are universal. As a filmmaker and creator, I was frustrated with that idea."
It is frustrating to think that back then, studios didn’t think a Brooklyn-based love story about Black professionals fumbling their way through friendship lows and career highs — all while hip-hop is their soundtrack — could be universal, but that’s exactly what Famuyiwa and co-writer Michael Elliot accomplished. Syd and Dre shine because they’re fully formed, flawed (something their onscreen sidekicks, Queen Latifah as Francine and the artist formerly known as Mos Def as Cavi respectively, remind them constantly), and selfish in the best way; they’re never trying to cater to a gaze that isn’t their own, which is why it felt like they were always talking to us. Find a millennial Black woman who grew up to be a writer who didn’t want to be just like Sydney Shaw. We dare you.
Sure, this column is supposed to be a deeper look at the scenes in the best onscreen Black love stories — the good and the bad — to see if all these years later, they still live up to the hype, but in this case, it’s simple. So, let’s get this out of the way: Brown Sugar is still, as Dre says to Syd, “the perfect verse over a tight beat.” The movie as a whole holds up beautifully, but do Syd and Dre as a couple? They both trample on a few hearts (Reese and Kelby, played by real-life married couple Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe) to get to their happily ever after, but do we think they’re still happy? Is Dre’s final, hail-mary grand gesture as romantic as our adolescent memories made it out to be? And most importantly, would we really want a love like this?
This week is all about celebrating Black love in all its forms here at R29Unbothered, so it’s the perfect time to look back on one of the best Black rom-coms of all time.
The Scene: You could make a solid case that the best scene in Brown Sugar is when Taye Diggs as Dre (who just found out his wife was cheating on him) clinks his glass and delivers in a high-pitched octave the line: “We finna celebrate! What? My divooorce!” with comedic timing only a former Broadway star could nail. But for the purposes of our dissection of the most romantic scene in the film, we’re going with the final moments. At this point, Syd has finished her book titled I Used To Love Him (a nod to the Common song) and is giving an interview on Hot 97 with Angie Martinez to promote it and her magazine. Dre is about to hear the first artist signed to his new label debut his single on the same station. He calls in during Syd’s interview (while he races to her in person) to get her to finally confess that she’s been in love with him since they were kids. By now, they’ve both been engaged to other people, they’ve been friends, lovers, and friends again, and through it all, they kept singing the same song — they just needed to finish the lyrics. In a Hot 97 studio, Dre finds the words to lock down the love of his life. The line that gets her: “You’re my air.” Swoon.
Does The Grand Gesture Hold Up?
Kathleen Newman-Bremang: This is my favourite rom-com of all time. I had my best friend Kayla read a passage from it during my wedding ceremony last month. I’m obsessed with it. My only worry with us doing this movie for the column was that I would just be like, “It’s perfect. No notes!” because that’s pretty much how I feel. However, my general rule about grand gestures is that they can't happen while someone is doing their job. If they're an athlete, it can’t be in the middle of their game. I hate those stories of proposals in the middle of a marathon. Sir, the woman has a race to finish! And I hated when Offset interrupted Cardi B during her Rolling Loud 2018 set to say, "Take me back, baby." Nope! Sis had a bag to secure! So, Syd is working during this grand gesture. She is promoting her book during a radio interview. That is my only beef. Otherwise, it is perfect, no notes.
Ineye Komonibo: Yeah, it holds up for me too. You know I love bird behaviour like this. I really liked when Syd said, "I've been in love with you since the moment I laid eyes on you." I thought, Oh, is it that simple? If Syd would've said something, Dre would've just been like, ‘Yeah, same. What's up?’ I thought that was so cute, because it's not about people who are falling in love with each other. They've always loved each other, and it's just that no one said anything. But then Syd decided how she felt about Dre, he immediately went, “Say less, I'm coming over!” I thought it was so precious.
KNB: It’s so nice! To go back to Syd being at work, I’m actually going to go against my rule because this was also a moment when both of their career dreams are coming true, which I love for them. They grew up together and bonded through dreaming together. So, in this moment, Cavi, Mos Def's character, is about to get his single played on Hot 97, which is a big moment for Dre and his record label. And Syd is obviously doing an interview where she gets to plug her book, which is a big accomplishment. She's the editor of XXL, which was always her dream. It just felt like such a full circle moment for both of them individually, independently of each other, which made it an even more beautiful moment for them together. They truly are each other’s air.
Abolish soulmates, except for Syd and Dre. I truly think these two characters are soulmates, and were destined to be together.
Could It Be Me?
KNB: I was in love with my best friend all through elementary and high school, so yes, this would absolutely be me. This movie came out right around when I was crushing on him; I wanted to be a magazine editor, and he wanted to be a music producer (he is now a DJ), and we both loved hip-hop so much. He performed his music at our high school talent show. I did a spoken-word poem about hip-hop. Seriously. We were those corny Black kids. We were basically Syd and Dre — except he only dated white girls [laughs]. Anyway, it would be me! That said, as an adult watching this movie, I don't know if I would've gone as far with Kelby as Syd does. She did Kelby dirty. I don't know if I would've let my best friend marry someone the next day after we made out. That stuff could not be me. But, I’m corny as hell and I love Taye Diggs so when he broke out the “yes box, no box, maybe box,” that 100% would’ve worked on me.
IK: If it was me, I think the story would've ended when Dre got married, just because of the way I think about marriage. I know that it doesn't always last forever, but that’s the goal. He made that decision to legally bind himself to another woman for life despite what happened the night before his wedding, so I'd have to take my L. You got married to a whole other person after all that? Yeah, I would probably feel embarrassed, like I overestimated my importance in his life, so I would step back and respect his situation. Respectfully, we're not going to be best friends anymore. I probably would've shut off that part of myself, because I don't believe in soulmates... Dre wouldn’t have been able to come back after that.
KNB: I don't believe in soulmates either, even though I’m married [laughs]. Abolish soulmates, except for Syd and Dre. I truly think these two characters are soulmates, and were destined to be together.
Can Lovers Really Be Friends?
IK: Not for me personally, but I do think it's generally possible. Let’s say you have a guy who’s your dorky friend. At one point, you’re going to say, "Hold on. Wait a minute. Is he cute? Is he giving something that he wasn't giving before?" You already know each other so well, and you’re already so close, so why wouldn't he be the perfect partner for you? I’m not saying it's a good idea, but I do understand why it would happen.
KNB: Oh, I understand why it happens for sure. And I think that relationships that are based on friendship, where you were friends first, provides a really solid foundation; it's only going to strengthen your romantic bond. But I don't think there's a way to go from a romantic relationship back to being friends.
Rate The Kiss:
IK: It's the bookshelf!
I’m still pressed about his whole marriage and then her engagement to someone else. I wouldn’t want a love like Syd and Dre’s because, at some point, he looked at her and said, 'No, not you.'
IK: Let me just say something about Taye Diggs: the man can kiss! When Sanaa was talking to him during the bookshelf scene, he looked down at her mouth, and his mouth did a thing — a twitch or something. It was in anticipation, as in "I'm going to swallow you whole." And I literally sat up in my bed and turned the fan on because I was sweating suddenly. I couldn’t tell if it was an involuntary action on Taye’s part, or if he’s just a master thespian because something very carnal happened in that split second.
KNB: Sanaa is so good in that scene, because you could tell she's trying so hard to not be shook by this man. Her mind is trying to talk her out of it, but her body is saying otherwise. That is a thespian. The bookshelf is my fave, but if I had to rate the final kiss, I'd give it a solid eight. It's good. It's a more comfortable kiss. They hug first, and it goes on forever; They cut to Mos Def and Queen Latifah, and it’s still going. At that moment, Syd and Dre are like, "We're done. We're good. We're together." It's not as hot and passionate as their other kiss, but it's solidifying what they have.
IK: It’s the unprofessionalism of it for me. Let’s not forget we're still at a place of work, people. The interview ended early, so it’s like, “Hey guys, at some point, we’ve got to leave." But I’ll give it a 7/10 because it looked great! I'm happy that it ended that way. You gotta end with a kiss every time.
KNB: Another thing that I love about this movie is that they didn't save the kiss until the freaking end. All of these Netflix rom-coms, like everything Christina Milian is in, do a peck at the very end of the movie. Nah, I want kisses throughout, and I want to end on a great kiss.
IK: Don't be stingy with the kisses either! I want to see kissing in every other scene. In a romance movie, the leads should kiss at least four times. At least.
Would You Want A Love Like This?
KNB: After all these years, yes, I absolutely would want to love like Syd and Dre’s. I love how deeply rooted in friendship it is. I love how much they support each other. I love that they know each other inside and out, and there will be no surprises. They really just had to get over their shit and be together. It's a very solid love, so yeah, of course I would want a solid love. However, I think in real life, it's very rare that your high school sweetheart, or the kid you grew up with and had a crush on, turns into someone whose values and everything are aligned with yours, and you're on this same path professionally. It's so, so rare. Yes, I would want to love like this. Do I think a love like this exists in real life? Maybe not.
I think their love holds up mainly because of Taye and Sanaa’s chemistry, and how palpable it is. And then also there's this mutual respect between Syd and Dre, and the way they talk to each other. The movie is very ahead of its time considering Syd's a professional. She's very much an equal in this relationship. She gives him money to start his label. That shit holds up because it’s progressive and feminist.
IK: I also really like that the desire and the longing are mutual. It doesn't always occur at the same time, but I think Syd cared about Dre just as much as he cared about her, even if their timing was off. I don't mind if a guy's longing for the woman, because that's how it should be. But I really hate to see a woman in a one-sided relationship, where she's the only one that cares about him, and one day he wakes up like, "Oh I care about you all of a sudden. Let's get married." I appreciated that the sentiment was more, "We've always felt this way about each other, and we just didn't have the words or the courage to say that thing, and so we're meeting in the middle" as opposed to "I'm catching up to your feelings that you had for 20 years.”
I like the idea of being with someone that you've known so well who knows everything about you, but I’m still pressed about his whole marriage and then her engagement to someone else. I wouldn’t want a love like Syd and Dre’s because, at some point, he looked at her and said, "No, not you." It's not like he got married without them kissing or having a spark. I could not want to be with a person who I felt didn't choose me when the opportunity presented itself. I would take it extremely personally and probably would've already talked myself out of it thinking that I was wrong about his feelings. He just wouldn't have been able to come back from that.
Is This Couple Still Together?
KNB: Yes — there's no other answer. I will fight anyone who tries to say they aren't.
IK: They're together, but they're not married. I think they're a power couple that doesn't need to have their situation explained or defined. They probably refer to each other their “partner.”
KNB: Okay, I can actually see them fighting about this, and then Syd caving. I could see Syd not wanting to get married but Dre really wanting to, and her saying , "Let's just be partners," and him being like, "Nah Syd. I want to put a ring on it." And then they fight about it, and then eventually Syd caves, and they get married. They don’t have kids. Hip-hop and their careers are their children.
IK: They have a dog. I see them as dog people. I see them running a startup, becoming weed entrepreneurs. There’s something about Dre that screams Silicon Valley. I see him as a dude who says “pivot” a lot and wears sneakers to conferences.
KNB: They definitely have a podcast. You know who has a bunch of kids, though? Cavi and Francine.