Sanaa Lathan has stepped into a new role making her film directorial debut with the coming of age story On the Come Up.
The film is based on the book by the same name written by Angie Thomas, and centers around an up-and-coming rapper named Bri (Jamila Gray). The 16-year-old is from Garden Heights, a fictional inner city, and is the daughter of a legendary underground MC named Lawless, who was fatally shot before making it big in the music industry. Bri got her talent and love for rap from her father and now spends her time sharpening her skills in rap battles her aunt and manager Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) takes her to. Their goal is for Bri to be discovered by a music label so that she can help her mother Jay (Lathan)—a recovering addict who just lost her job—keep the lights on in their apartment.
The story hit home for Lathan who has previously talked about having family members who struggled with drug abuse. Lathan has had an acting career spanning decades, and has starred in beloved films like Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar and The Best Man—so choosing the right story for her first time sitting in the director’s chair was key. “It is full circle. I’ve been doing it for so long and it felt really natural to step behind the camera, especially because this story really resonated so much with me,” Lathan tells Complex, saying she identified with the main character. “I saw a young Sanaa in Bri. I saw many women in my family in Jay and Pooh. And it just felt good to be able to have this story, which has so much heart and is so entertaining and so much depth, to bring that as my first thing.”
This Is Us writer Kay Oyegun wrote the script and that’s what caught Lathan’s eye when she was searching for a project to direct. “It’s very few and far between that you will actually get a script that you want to read from beginning to end. I wanted to read this from beginning to end. It was a page-turner. I laughed, I got emotional. Right there, you know it’s quality,” she says. “And the message of stepping into who you are authentically, and that’s how you win. That message to me was really important.”
On the Come Up made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month before hitting Paramount+ on Friday (Sept. 23). Soon after the premiere, it was announced that the film would also be getting a theatrical release. The film has received some harsh reviews so far, but who cares? Netflix and other streaming apps have dedicated sections for teen movies that are simply not good and usually lack depth, and those films usually go on to get sequel after sequel and no one bats an eye. Actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde also received wide praise for her film Booksmart that was also about teenagers but Lathan’s debut seems to not be getting as much support. It is also unjustly being compared to other films about rappers like 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and Hustle & Flow, which are all about a musician trying to make it in the business.
But On the Come Up isn’t trying to be comparable to those either. It’s a teen movie and in the same vein as films like You Got Served and Stomp the Yard—coming-of-age stories about young people of color figuring out life. Except this one centers around a young Black girl who is fighting to survive regardless of the cards life has dealt her, and that’s not a story Hollywood likes to tell very often. It’s also timely since we’re currently in an era where women are dominating hip-hop and the rap world. Surely the battle rapping and music aspect of the film could have been stronger but all in all, the film serves its purpose if you give it a chance.
Thomas, who also wrote The Hate U Give, is set on creating stories that help Black teenagers feel understood and empowered—the kind she wishes she had when she was younger. “Bri represents so many Black girls who exist,” the book author tells Complex. “These Black girls who are being told that they’re either too much or not enough, they’re too loud and too aggressive, they are too angry or they’re not smart enough, they’re not good enough, and I want my book and this movie to tell them they’re enough, period.”
With Latham at the helm, Oyegun writing the script, Gray as the film’s star, and Thomas’ book inspiring the story, this film is being entirely led by Black women and as the author says, “It’s sad to say that in 2022, we’re still not seeing that nearly as much.” Thomas was involved in the directorial selection and knew Lathan was the one for the job soon after their first conversation. “I got a chance to talk with several directors and I remember when they told me that she was one of them, I kind of fangirled a bit. Love & Basketball was my Pride & Prejudice,” Thomas says. “When I had a chance to talk with her and hear her as the director I was blown away. Her vision for it but then also her love for the story and the way she connected with it, it was so apparent and it felt like nobody else could do this justice like she would. She just set the bar and it was going to be really high for anybody else to reach it.”
On the Come Up is also Gray’s first feature film, and her first as the lead. She tells Complex that she knows she is now creating an avenue for kids like her to know they can also make it. Working on this film alongside industry vets like Method Man and Mike Epps could have been intimidating, but having Lathan as a co-star and director helped. “Her being an actress first, she just really understood everything that I would be going through and she was just so patient with me,” Gray says. “She gave us time to rehearse and usually that doesn’t even happen on bigger sets. You walk on and you get started but she was just so patient and seeing her switch modes from actor to director was amazing. She’s just so experienced and phenomenal and I learned a lot from her.”
Miles Gutierrez-Riley, who plays Bri’s friend Sonny, agrees and says that being in a cast with newer talent and seasoned professionals provided them all with a learning opportunity. “Everyone approached [the film] with this huge level of humility and grace. No one had an ego, everyone was humble and everyone was also there to work,” he tells Complex. “At the same time it was a very supporting environment and a challenging one because you were being pushed to rise to the level of these icons and these people who really know their way around the industry and the craft. It was a really enriching experience and a real blessing to be a part of it.”
Aside from studying battle rap and listening to a lot of classic hip-hop like Jay-Z, Nas, Big Pun, and Ms. Jade to prepare for the role, Gray also spoke to friends whose parents struggled with addiction. In the film, Bri gets a reputation for being aggressive and a troubled kid, even though she isn’t. She strives to rap about topics that matter, she wins some rap battles, but her need to help her mom financially leads her to recording a viral song that goes against her beliefs. Both Thomas and Lathan praised Gray’s performance in the film, and the book author said after witnessing the actress’ professionalism and passion on set, she knows this film will just be “a footnote in what’s about to be a huge, amazing career.”
As far as Lathan goes, she is still focused on her acting career while forging a new path for herself behind the camera. “I haven’t given up acting. I see myself as a storyteller. I’ll tell a story through my directing, through writing, and I don’t have to choose,” she says. “That’s the beauty of the business now with seeing so many amazing women and people of color being represented in front and behind the cameras. It’s a great time to be in the business now.”
The actress, whose father Stan Lathan is also a director, has a goal to continue telling stories that encompass the fullness of what it means to be a person, not just the filtered versions of who we are. “I am a believer that I want to reflect the human experience. Everything doesn’t have to be positive and full of messages,” she says. “Sometimes it’s about reflecting the dark stuff as well. For me, it’s about continuing to push myself outside of my comfort zone and to be challenged and to tell stories that are meaningful to me.”
On the Come Up also features appearances by Lil Yachty and Dave’s GaTa. The film is now available to stream on Paramount+ and in select movie theaters.