With ‘On The Come Up,’ Sanaa Lathan Makes Her Directorial Debut!

Sanaa Lathan is no stranger to capturing the attention of the camera. Her roles in “Love & Basketball,” “Brown Sugar,” and a variety of films and TV shows over a 25-year career attest to this.

But in her current movie, “On the Come Up,” we get to experience things through Lathan’s eyes as she directs and also stars as Jay, the mother of aspiring adolescent rapper Bri.

This idea, based on Angie Thomas’ YA novel of the same name, piqued Lathan’s interest. So much so that she compared it to the feeling she had when she earned her first big job.

“It was like three other directors and me,” Lathan told HuffPost. “However, when I eventually got the part of the director, I cried as I did when I got the part of ‘Love & Basketball.'”

Bri, a 16-year-old character in the film, hopes to follow in her late father’s footsteps by using combat rap as a platform to establish a reputation for herself. Bri has a strained connection with her mother, Jay, due to Jay’s heroin addiction. Though Jay has recovered from her addiction, her life takes a turn when financial difficulties, police violence, and the prospect of losing her daughter come at her door.

Lathan stated that she realized the script was good the moment she began reading it. The woman in the narrative had her heart almost immediately.

“I was smitten by Bri.” Bri reminded me a lot of my younger self. In Jay and Pooh, I saw a lot of ladies I know and love. “I also liked the idea of a coming-of-age story about a young girl in the world of combat rap,” she said.

“I hadn’t seen that before. And combat rap is a completely different kind of hip-hop that I find intriguing and is still very much alive today. And there were so many things that made me want to tell the story.”


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Though wearing two hats for the film was difficult, Lathan was not unfamiliar with the directing process. Stan Lathan, an award-winning director, is her father. Her desire to work behind the camera began at a young age, and she studied film while attending Yale School of Drama for graduate school.

Recognizing that she had more on-set experience than many filmmakers, she began teaching directors about seven years ago. Lathan realized she had a lot to contribute at that point. As a result, she began training with a director of photography. During the pandemic, she directed her first film, a short that was never released, and starred her dog in her living room.

“I merely showed it to my agent, who happened to be a buddy of mine.” I wasn’t showing it to him so he could submit me. And he’s only recently begun submitting me. “And the next thing I know, I was pitching for ‘On the Come Up,'” she explained.

Lathan admitted that filming “On the Come Up” was difficult. She sought counsel from her father and “Love & Basketball” director Gina Prince-Bythewood, particularly on the business and financial fronts. Her father saw a few preliminary clips and attended the Toronto International Film Festival premiere in early September.

“Seeing him happy simply makes me so happy,” she remarked. “I think he’s as surprised as I am that I’m on this road now.”

Lathan understood that the perfect storm of the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, Time’s Up, the development of streaming, and the desire for better representation in Hollywood had finally allowed her to achieve a long-held ambition. According to Lathan, “On the Come Up” couldn’t have been a better fit for her directorial debut.

“One of the film’s beauties, and what is so familiar to me, is that the women are the backbones of many families.” “The women’s community raises generations, and this is a tribute to that family,” she said. “My grandma, aunts, and cousins raised us all, which is a fairly usual thing.” And I want women to recognize this and feel as if they are being seen in this regard. As well as Bri’s struggle to find her real voice and move into her authority. That is a message that men, women, children, and people of all races can embrace.”

Lathan, of course, intends to continue performing, reuniting with the original cast of “Best Man” for the spin-off series, which will premiere later this year on Peacock. She does, however, intend to continue directing for at least the next five years, if not longer.

“I just want to keep telling tales that push me as an actor and as a filmmaker,” she stated. “I want to refine my perspective as a director, hone my skills, and just keep telling these tales in the hopes that people will relate.”