On the Come Up first made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month. The film is adapted from Angie Thomas’ 2019 novel of the same name, which was named one of the top ten books for young adults by the American Library Association in 2020. The movie features Jamila C. Gray as 16-year-old protagonist and aspiring rapper Brianna Jackson, but On the Come Up also marks the directorial debut of Emmy-nominated actress Sanaa Lathan.
Sanaa Lathan may already be known for her roles in movies like Love and Basketball and Brown Sugar, and she received praise her voice work in shows such as Family Guy and the animated series Harley Quinn. But as the daughter of acclaimed TV producer/director and filmmaker Stan Lathan, it would only be expected that her transition to behind the camera would be natural and smooth. But the New York City native tirelessly pulled double duty for On the Come Up as well, acting in the role of Bri’s mother, Jay.
On the Come Up finally made its theatrical release last week on September 23, and it is currently available on the Paramount+ streaming service as well. And Lathan took time out of her busy schedule to speak with CASSIUS about a number of topics surrounding the movie.
Read her interview below to find her opinion on what makes for a good female emcee, the power of words, how her own childhood influenced the way she connected with Bri, and which member of the cast was the best rapper on set.
CASSIUSLife: On the Come Up is your directorial debut. And you’re now going from in front of the lens, where you’ve normally been, to behind it. So was that a conscious decision to pick this plot as your directorial debut? And how much of yourself did you see in Bri when doing the movie?
Sanaa Lathan: It was not a conscious decision to pick this one. It came through my agents. I had a really good agent who pitched me, and he knew about my musical background. My mother was a dancer and my dad [is a filmmaker]. We grew up in New York City around hip hop and hip hop culture, and I fell in love with it once I read the script.
We grew up in New York City around hip hop and hip hop culture, and I fell in love with it once I read the script.
Then I read the book, and I saw a lot of my younger self in Bri, around that 15-year-old range. That’s when I joined a teen theater group and kind of put a lot of that childhood angst. There was a lot of it in my particular childhood.
And I saw that acting could kind of heal me and it could kind of lift me up and give me hope. That’s very similar to Bri’s arc, with rapping and with her poetry. She uses it as a kind of as a healing force, and it gives her a future. So I really identify with that.
With the role that I played, [Bri’s mother] Jay, I see a lot of women in my family that are like her. And I just fell in love with so many aspects of it, and I just knew I had to go for it.
CASSIUSLife: Now, there is a lot of conversation around race and gender in the movie, as well as plenty of other things, of course. But sometimes people will say that a rapper is “good for a woman.”
But what do you think separates a “a rapper who’s good for a woman” from “a rapper who is good,” irrespective of gender?
Sanaa Lathan: I don’t. Those are misogynistic people. I don’t have a different bar for women. I have a bar for who’s good and who’s not. I think that is a testament to this story. With Jamila’s performance as Bri, you see her go up against a lot of guys who have skills — but she’s got better skills.
And I was so blessed and lucky to have hired Rapsody, who is a Grammy Award-winning MC, and I call her my rap maestro. She wrote all of the battles on both sides. And she worked with all of the actors to really make them feel like they were real rappers. She’s a testament to a great female rapper. “Great for a girl, though…” Yeah, whatever, right. We don’t listen to those people. [smiles]
CASSIUSLife: Rap transcends so many different criteria. And you have movies like 8 Mile and Patti Cake$ to which your movie is being compared. But one of the things that I think is awesome is how this particular story is told predominantly from the Black perspective. So how do we tell the story without necessarily alienating that non-Black or white audience? And does it even matter?
Sanaa Lathan: Well, when you tell a story, you just tell the truth. And this is about a little Black girl coming into her voice. But it’s a universal story. This could be an Asian boy. This could be a little white girl. I mean, it could be this story, just like Love and Basketball.
I have people of all races, of all genders, all ages, and nationalities coming up to me and saying how much they identify with the story.
I have people of all races, of all genders, all ages, and nationalities coming up to me and saying how much they identify with the story. And I feel like the nature of Angie’s writing and these characters is about Black people — and yet it’s so universal. I think that’s why it resonates.
CASSIUSLife: Obviously, this is a different space for you, as a director. And I’m thinking of Bri’s trajectory coming in as this new young rapper, too. So without saying too much, how does one balance the natural desire for commercial success with the want for critical acclaim, all while retaining authenticity? Because that’s a big part of the story — authenticity and what that might mean.
Sanaa Lathan: I don’t think there’s any one rule for that. I think that each individual has to go and check in with their gut, but I think people know. People know when they’re kind of veering off the path of what they should. And sometimes people make those choices for survival. There’s no judgment. But sometimes there are consequences, too.
Like in Bri’s case, the consequences were that there was gang violence. I won’t give it away, but there was gang violence that affected people in a real way. So your words matter.
CASSIUSLife: Lastly, you’re from New York. And you had rappers like Method Man, Lil Yachty, and Rapsody in the movie. But I’ve gotta ask: out of the non-lyricists, who spit the most fire 16?
Sanaa Lathan: I’d have to say Jamila, because that was actually part of the audition. We had the actors do their scenes, but then they had to come up with their own 16. And let me tell you, she was great.
But now as for Method [Man]? He was on set solely as an actor, not going around rhyming. He’s a true thespian now! [laughs]