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.