Sanaa Lathan has never been a fan of boxes. As an actress, she’s moved from the big screen to the small screen and on stage with ease. Although we’ve loved her as Monica Wright in Love and Basketball and Robin in The Best Man, we’ve also embraced her as Janelle Wilson in The Affair and Lisa Arthur on Succession, for which she received an Emmy nomination. And now Lathan has switched it up and added director to her amazing list of talents. On the Come Up is a coming-of-age story adapted from the book of the same name, which was written by impactful young adult author Angie Thomas who is also behind The Hate U Give.
The film spotlights aspiring teenage rapper Brianna “Bri” Jackson, played by newcomer Jamila Gray, who is the daughter of Lawless Jackson, a neighborhood rap legend who was on his way to extraordinary success when he was killed. While following in those footsteps is not easy, Bri is also processing her feelings about her mother Jay, a recovering drug addict, played by Lathan, who left her and her brother Trey to live with family when her addiction got the worse of her. In addition, she is unfairly and brutally detained and restrained by security at her high school.
“I see a lot of myself in Bri,” Lathan tells EBONY. “She comes from a lot of struggle and trauma, and she winds up healing herself through her poetry, her rhyming. I was born to two amazing, young Black artists who were going for their dream, and that was really a struggle for them.”
“People think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she continues. “It was actually quite the contrary. There was a lot of trauma in my childhood and around 14 I got involved in a Black teen theatre group in downtown New York City. It was the first time that I saw ‘oh, wow, I really love this thing called acting and it's also something that can heal, that I can channel all of my angst and trauma into' and it gave me hope. It gave me my voice and it gave me direction. So I really saw a lot of that in [Bri and On the Come Up].”
As the daughter of highly regarded director and producer Stan Lathan, known for Def Comedy Jam and numerous comedy specials, including Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones and Dave Chappelle: Equanimity, which both won Emmys, Lathan also knows the pressure Bri feels following in such big footsteps. “You already have an identity that's put on you that has nothing to do with you. And I think Bri feels that pressure because she doesn't have the same dream, but she has inherited her father's gift. It's an extra pressure to want to live up to the love that he got,” explains Lathan .
Fortunately, she does still have her father and “he was so tickled once I got the job,” she reports. “It was definitely a fight to get the job. It was me against three other directors. That's something people don't talk about—that quote unquote audition process for directors that I was not really privy to. That's a whole process so he was so excited and just so supportive. He was wonderful. There's a lot [of other elements] when you're directing; it's not all creative. There's a lot of business and politics involved. And that's something that I wasn't necessarily used to as an actor [because] you come on and you play your role and then you go home.” Of course, The Woman King and Love and Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who is Lathan's dear friend, also supported her and offered advice.
Author Angie Thomas’ work is a favorite of Lathan's, especially in how she amplifies Black women’s voices. “She writes such beautiful, layered characters. She always has had young Black females at the center of her stories and, in all their glory, all their complexities. She really deals with what they really go through in this modern society, and I think that's why young people really resonate with her as an author. And her stories are so entertaining, and, also, relevant to what's going on politically.”
As both an actor and director, not to mention co-star, Lathan, was a tremendous resource to Gray, the film's star.
“Because [Lathan] had been an actor first, she really understood some of the struggles of being an actor, especially a new one,” shares Gray. “She was very patient with me and the entire cast. Watching her act was amazing because you learn so much from people just by watching.”
Thomas echoes those kudos. “To talk to her and to hear how she connected with the story, the love and passion she had for it, and the vision she had for it, it was everything I wanted in a director, and I think she did a phenomenal job. I'm so happy and so proud of her. And I can't wait for everybody to see this new journey that she's taking.”
Lathan really hopes this film—which also stars Da’Vine Randolph Joy, Method Man, Mike Epps, and Lil Yachty, with Rapsody serving as a consultant—resonates in crucial ways with young people. “The biggest takeaway for me,” she says of On the Come Up is “it's about who you're going to be in the world. That we do have agency over who we decide to be in the words we use, what our voice is going to be in this world, and that is the struggle that Bri goes through in this journey. She has to decide who she wants to be: is she going to step into who she truly is authentically? Or, is she going to follow the trends of what the world tells her she should be?”
On the Come Up is showing in select theaters and streaming on Paramount+ .