20 years ago today on Oct. 11, 2002, Rick Famuyiwa’s classic rom-com “Brown Sugar” made its theatrical debut and introduced the world to a cinematic hip-hop love story like no other. After two decades, the nostalgic film remains one of the blueprints for Black romance and hip-hop storytelling. But something else from “Brown Sugar” has also stood the test of time: Sanaa Lathan‘s incomparable Sidney “Sid” Shaw.
On the surface, “Brown Sugar” tells an affectionate story about Sidney and her childhood friend-turned-lover, Andre “Dre” Ellis (played by Taye Diggs) — a journalist and music executive, respectively, who find love through their shared appreciation for hip-hop. As a kid, that’s all I acknowledged the movie as — a simple rom-com. But at 25 years old, I’ve found more common ground with the film beyond just being a fan of hip-hop, and that’s all thanks to Sidney.
“I don’t think there’s ever an amount of words that could possibly be said for how many young girls do see themselves in Sidney Shaw.”
To me, and many other women in my position, Sidney was more than just a hip-hop journalist. She was a vision that inspired a generation of young Black girls to follow in her footsteps. Her come-up in a male-dominated industry was almost too good to be true. At the start of “Brown Sugar,” we watch Sidney make her transition from being a music critic for the Los Angeles Times to an editor at XXL — a top hip-hop media outlet. Oftentimes back then, and even still today, women gaining respect in hip-hop — whether they’re at the forefront or working behind the scenes — was an uphill battle. But “Brown Sugar” put Sidney in a world where, as a Black woman, her esteemed reputation allowed her to rub elbows with hip-hop greats like Common, Method Man, Angie Martinez, Black Thought, Jermaine Dupri, De La Soul, and more. She was living the dream — one many of us wanted to manifest, too.
“With ‘Brown Sugar,’ I don’t think there’s ever an amount of words that could possibly be said for how many young girls do see themselves in Sidney Shaw,” Kia Turner, writer and content creator for Okayplayer, tells POPSUGAR. “From the texture of her hair to how you watch her evolve from being the tomboy hip-hop writer . . . even as you watch her try to figure out her love situation . . . her trying to [do that] while also figuring out her love for what she does, I feel like that happens to us, too.”
Dallas-based music and pop culture writer Taylor Crumpton adds: “What I love about the film is that she really had this deep love for hip-hop . . . I can’t really name [another] film where we see a Black woman music journalist be a full three-dimensional character . . . She’s really the pioneer. I can’t think of [anyone] who, off the bat, was also young and trendy and current.”
“Watching her go hard for this culture . . . More than anything, that’s the part of me that I really connect with her.”
Aside from Sidney’s career-driven attitude, her easeful way of moving through life helped many of us find ourselves as young adults as well. As a college student, I didn’t have the slightest clue about what professional path I wanted to pursue. All I knew was that I had a gift for writing and a fiery passion just like Sidney. Back then, seeing her — someone who looks like me, walks like me, and talks like me — go after the things that motivated her in life inspired me to want to do the same.
Nadirah Simmons, founder and CEO of The Gumbo — an online community dedicated to documenting and celebrating Black women in hip-hop — is among the many Sidneys of the world who found herself greatly influenced by “Brown Sugar.” In fact, the film’s (and Sidney’s) famous question, “When did you fall in love with hip-hop?” inspired her hub’s very first monthly theme. Like many of us, Simmons’s personal connections to Sidney made her fall even more in love with her impactful work. “Watching her go hard for this culture . . . More than anything, that’s the part of me that I really connect with her,” she shares with POPSUGAR. Simmons, Crumpton, Turner, and I agree that we can all relate to Sidney’s stubbornness, indecisiveness, and independent nature. But the main thing that unites us is the fact that, in some way, shape, or form, we are Sidney.
We celebrate Sidney for being a devoted career woman, putting in time outside of (and during) work to finish her book, “I Used to Love Him,” and hitting up live shows with her partner-in-crime. But one of the most useful lessons she and “Brown Sugar” taught us is the value of indulging in life’s joys. As educated, working Black women, we feel like we have to be married to our work and nothing else because we’re constantly told it’s impossible to balance all our desires and sustain a demanding career — Sidney dispelled that myth for us. Because we saw her have a life outside of her job — which included going on dates, being in a relationship, and sustaining friendships — she showed us that we could have one, too.
“The movie showed me that you can have that work life and that romance,” Simmons says. “I know the big thing is that, oh she ends up with her best friend [at the end], but the movie is also saying that you can have both . . . Especially for Black women, they try to make it seem like you can’t have both, but watching [the movie] again as an adult, I love seeing Sidney, not just excel at her career but [at life, too].
For many of us, Sidney is the reason we felt like we could have successful careers as journalists. The industry power she possessed was model of what we could be one day. And 20 years later, we now have other Sidneys we can look up to. There’s Kierna Mayo, former editor-in-chief of Ebony and cofounder of Honey; Clover Hope, whose writing credits include Vibe, XXL, and Billboard, and author of “The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop”; Danyel Smith, former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Billboard and author of “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop”; and Ivie Ani, whose work has been featured in everything from Teen Vogue and Vibe to The Fader, GQ, and OkayAfrica. These journalists’ drive, determination, and influence are what we aspire to. That’s what “Brown Sugar” and Sidney gave us as well.
“Seeing her exist in that space is so important and I’d just thank her for that more than anything.”
If there was anything to be said to Sidney today, for all the women she’s inspired, Simmons says she would thank her. “Thank you for letting us know that we can have it all,” she said. “. . . that we can go after our dreams, go after that person, and we don’t have to sacrifice one or the other just because people feel like your career is more important . . . Creating a role where the Black woman is in a main character role and an authority on something . . . Seeing her exist in that space is so important and I’d just thank her for that more than anything because it not only resonates within that ecosystem, but in everyday life, too.”
The beauty of Sidney’s story in “Brown Sugar” is that it’s clear it continues past where the film ends. And for those of us especially interested, we know Sidney had another journey to follow way before then, too — that time in between meeting the child and adult versions of her character. What was Sidney like as a teenager? Did she have journalistic ambitions growing up? What triumphs and tribulations did she endure on her way up the career ladder? What would Sidney’s story and “Brown Sugar” look like today? These questions are what make us revisit the timeless film over and over again because every time we watch it there’s something new to be unearthed.
Now, this is by no means a case for a “Brown Sugar” sequel or prequel, but there’s definitely room for another story to be told to inspire future generations of Black women journalists. Just as her legacy has aged finely for the past 20 years, the great Sidney Shaw will continue to be celebrated for years to come. Per Crumpton, “. . . She’s going to be around for a while until we find that pantheon [of her character] expands and opens.”