Sanaa Lathan, one of Hollywood’s most beloved Black actresses, is now embarking on a new trajectory of legacy. With her place in the culture cemented by staple films such as Love & Basketball and The Best Man, the Emmy-nominated star is already iconic. Still, Lathan is leveling up yet again for her directorial debut: the on-screen adaptation of Angie Thomas’ bestseller, On The Come Up.
The film tells the story of a gifted 16-year-old rapper named Bri (played by Jamila C. Gray), who attempts to take the battle rap scene by storm. In order to continue the legacy of her Hip-Hop legend father—whose career was cut short by gang violence—Bri releases her first viral song for all the wrong reasons. She soon finds herself torn between the authenticity that kick-started her rap career and a false persona that the industry wants to impose upon her.
The movie’s theme of channeling childhood trauma is all too familiar to many young Black children that can relate, including Gray. “At the age I am now, I’m still dealing with some of the stuff that Bri has experienced: finding her authentic voice, being true to herself, and being proud of who she is,” she said. Lathan herself also found a personal connection to Bri. “I joined a teen theater group at 15, and I had experienced a lot of trauma in my early childhood. I had to channel a lot of that into acting. And I’ve discovered, ‘Oh, acting is healing,’” she shared.
Thomas made sure to prioritize the heart of Bri’s story as she was very hands-on in production. She declared, “Everybody is exactly what I hoped for, and more as their characters” as “movies and books are going to be different.”
In an interview with award-winning actress Sanaa Lathan, she revealed to VIBE her sentiments about taking on such a directorial role, as well as what the novel-turned-film On The Come Up means to her.
VIBE: Can you speak to any emotions that you may have felt or challenges you faced as you stepped into this directorial debut and new role?
Sanaa Lathan: Well, I had to really – what they call – “pitch” to get the job. But it was a long process; it was like a couple months. I was up against three other directors who had a lot more experience than I did. It’s interesting. When they told me I had the job after pitching for a couple months, I cried. I cried like when I got Love & Basketball. So that’s when I was like, ‘Yeah, this really is something that I unconsciously was going to go into [directing]. I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to direct next.’ But I think unconsciously, it’s something that I had been moving towards.
What resonated with you the most about the characters in the book-turned-film?
So many things. I mean, I saw a lot of my younger self in Bri as young Sanaa. I joined a teen theater group at 15 and I had experienced a lot of trauma in my early childhood. I had to channel a lot of that into acting. And I’ve discovered, ‘Oh, acting is healing.’ Acting can be not only fun and can give me a future, but it can also help me deal with all of this stuff that I’m feeling — just like Bri does with her rhymes and her battles. So [I] completely identified with that. The women Pooh and Jay, I recognize those women. Those are women in my family. There were so many things that I identified with.
Speaking of rhyming, this film does surround battle rap. As one of the pioneering Black actresses that everyone admires (even artists have mentioned you in their songs), do you feel that you’ve received your flowers yet, especially in Hollywood?
Flowers? I’ve gotten lots of flowers. Got some flowers today. (laughs)
Well, listen, the flowers are doing it. It’s a blessing to be able to inhabit these characters. The reward to me is being able to do it and to be able to entertain people. I’m living my dream, so that’s my reward. I mean that. Flowers would be nice (laughs), but that’s a cherry on top.
I love that. So you’re directing while acting in the same film. You can do it all. What’s next for Sanaa?
Well, I have The Best Man limited series coming out in December, which I know everybody’s excited to see. And then I am about to go shoot a movie with Aunjanue Ellis and Uzo Aduba called The Supreme At Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat. It’s a long title, but I’m really excited to go work with those fine actresses. I kind of grew up alongside Aunjanue, we both came out of school at the same time, so I’m really looking forward to that.
On The Come Up, a State Street Pictures and Temple Hill production, stars Mike Epps, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Justin Martin, Titus Makin, Michael Cooper Jr., GaTa, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, and Sanaa Lathan. Alongside Lathan’s direction and John Fischer’s executive production, the film boasts assistance from the original novel’s author Angie Thomas, George Tillman Jr., Robert Teitel, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, and Timothy M. Bourne.
Lathan’s directorial debut, On The Come Up, is now available to stream on the Paramount+ platform.