Sanaa Lathan Is A Director Now & On The Come Up Is Her Triumphant Debut

Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy.
Photos: courtesy of Paramount Plus; Jim Spellman/Getty Images.
What’s Good? Sanaa Lathan’s directorial debut On The Come Up premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. It’s streaming on Paramount+ today. On the red carpet for the premiere, Lathan didn’t want to commit to telling people how to feel after seeing the movie. “I just want people to be entertained, to want to discuss, to want to watch it again and just be inspired,” Lathan told Unbothered. “There’s so many messages in the movie. Take one, just take something!” What’s so good about On The Come Up is that audiences will definitely walk away with something — entertainment, the urge to run the film back immediately, inspiration — but most of all, you’ll be left with the feeling of promise and potential. Not just for Lathan as a new filmmaker who proves on this film that she should absolutely sit in the director’s chair again, but for its star Jamila C. Gray, an exhilarating newcomer who reaches through the screen and screams at you to pay attention to her talent. Watching Gray shine as Bri, a 16-year-old aspiring rapper and extraordinary freestyler who can spit bars off the dome with the best of them, is like watching a star form in real time — like the first time you saw Sanaa Lathan in her breakout role as Monica in Love & Basketball
 Who It’s Good For: On The Come Up is the second film adaptation of one of Angie Thomas’s novels; the first was The Hate U Give. If you are familiar with Thomas’s work, you know that she has an uncanny ability to take big social issues and distill them through the eyes of a teenage girl. In both stories, Black girls have to battle through social injustice and misogynoir as well as the big crushes, family drama, and raging hormones that come with teen girlhood. Thomas tells stories that centre Black girls but also ones that tackle what it’s like to be a multifaceted Black girl in a world that doesn’t want to see you win. So, the simple answer is that On The Come Up is for us, complicated Black girls (and those of us who are still teenagers in our souls) who crave representation and who love watching confirmations of our existence and of our dreams on screen. “All Black girls should know that they are enough just as they are, no matter where they’re from, no matter what their circumstance is,” Lathan said on the red carpet. In her own interview with Unbothered, Thomas echoed the sentiment: “The world world often tells [Black girls] that they’re either too much or not enough and I’m here to tell them that they are enough.” she said. Lathan agreed: “They are enough and they are loved and to love and accept yourself is to step into your power."

All Black girls should know that they are enough just as they are, no matter where they’re from, no matter what their circumstance is... They are enough and they are loved and to love and accept yourself is to step into your power.

sanaa lathan
For Bri, the complex Black girl at the center of On The Come Up, her power is in self-acceptance but that doesn’t come at first. First, she has to battle her demons: grief from losing her father who was also a rapper, trauma from caring for her mother Jay (Lathan) as she struggled with addiction, and lack of confidence that leads to her stage fright during rap battles. Bri is on a journey of self-discovery. On The Come Up is for anyone who has ever wanted to believe in themselves a little more and who took awhile to fully embrace their own brilliance. It’s for fans of hip-hop (Method Man is amazing — and very hot — as Supreme, a smarmy rap manager),  millennials who remember rushing home to watch Freestyle Fridays on BET, and anyone who has ever tried to drop impromptu bars and knows how hard that skill is.
Grammy-nominated rapper and songwriter Rapsody is the mind behind Bri’s rhymes and even though her flow, just like her self-esteem, takes a few acts to get right, the lyrics themselves are strong from the jump. Sure, the 8-Mile comparisons are easy but this movie goes beyond battle rap, it’s a coming-of-age tale of Black girlhood, family (Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Bri’s Aunt Pooh, her bombastic manager who is as protective of her niece as she is drawn to trouble, is exceptional and the film’s brightest scene-stealer), friendship, and failure. 
Courtesy: Paramount+
How Good Is It? There are some cracks in the foundation of this film, moments where you can tell it’s made by someone who is still finding their footing as a filmmaker but the shaky moments (mainly flashbacks that feel heavy-handed with shoddy effects) only add to the scrappy feel of Bri’s story. She’s a rapper just starting out, of course she’s going to be hesitant at times — predictable and cliche at worst and relatable, motivational, and uplifting at best. “Hip-hop is not just a sound, it’s an attitude, it’s a swag, it’s about owning who you are,” Lathan said of the genre that acts as the soundtrack of the film but also its heart. Gray as Bri has swag and attitude in spades and as Bri starts to own who she is, Gray’s performance carries the film through any rough patches. Lathan is clearly an actor’s director. 
The rap battles help tell Bri’s story and the final one is sure to have you out of your seat (or couch, if you choose that streaming life) cheering and/or crying, but my favourite moments of On The Come Up play out when Bri is just being a regular kid aside from her spectacular gift as an MC. As the story unfolds of Bri’s brush with hood fame when her first single pops off on radio, she’s also dealing with her relationship with her best friend and crush, Malik (a swoon-inducing Michael Cooper Jr.), and her other bestie, Sonny (Miles Gutierrez in a role more worthy of him than The Wilds). Their friendship is joyful, affirming for Bri, and most of all, FUN. I loved watching these actors’ chemistry (a dying art) with each other and how much fun it seemed like they were having on set. It also made me misty to think of how supported these young Black creatives must have felt on a set helmed by a Black woman in a story that revolves around a Black girl. 
“It feels pretty necessary. I cannot understate how important having a Black woman at the helm is and how much you can feel it running down into every crevice of the production,” Gutierrez said on the carpet. “Having a young Black woman as her lead and as her ingenue was an amazing dynamic to watch.” Their dynamic is apparent through the scenes between Bri and her mom Jay that will kick you in the gut and make your eyes leak, but also every time Gray shines on screen and you know that Lathan is doing for her what Gina Prince-Bythewood did for Lathan: give her space to been seen and to allow others to feel the same solely because of her presence. On The Come Up is an entertaining, emotional, inspirational watch. It’s also the film we’ll look back on and remember as the start of both Lathan’s (as a director) and Gray’s (as an actress) own come ups.
What Else Is Good?
John Boyega. And his preferences. All very, very good.
•  Spending some time with your wash day routine. Savour it, soak in it, self care the shit out of your weekend.
• The fact that it’s auutmn so we can really start dressin!
• Listening to our podcast Go Off, Sis – especially this week’s episode with the one and only Joy Ofudo talking about how she hard launched her relationship on YouTube.

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