Sanaa Lathan came out swinging with her directorial debut, “On the Come Up,” which finally made its way to streaming and select theaters on Sept. 23. The veteran actor brought Angie Thomas’s bestselling 2019 novel of the same name to life with a hip-hop coming-of-age tale — which premiered at this year’s Toronto Film Festival — starring herself, Jamila C. Gray, Method Man, Lil Yachty, Mike Epps, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, GaTa, Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Titus Makin Jr., and Michael Anthony Cooper Jr.
“[‘On the Come Up’] is really a coming-of-age story, and the hip-hop part of it is part of what gets her to step into her power.”
While “On the Come Up” marks Lathan’s first time behind the camera for a film, she’s no stranger to telling music-inspired stories. The actor’s many credits include “Love & Basketball,” the Best Man franchise, and Rick Famuyiwa’s hip-hop rom-com “Brown Sugar,” in which Lathan and her longtime costar Taye Diggs played childhood friends Sidney “Syd” Shaw and Andre “Dre” Ellis nearly 20 years ago.
Even though “Brown Sugar” and “On the Come Up” follow two very different plots, Lathan admits that it still feels like a full-circle moment to bring yet another hip-hop story to the big screen. “It’s interesting because ‘Brown Sugar’ was a love story set in the world of hip-hop, and this is a coming-of-age story set in the world of battle rap,” she tells POPSUGAR. “So yes, it has the same themes because it’s hip-hop culture, but they’re really so drastically different. The battle-rap scene, which is still really strong and in effect today, is really exciting and very different from the radio hip-hop hits that you hear. . . . [‘On the Come Up’] is really a coming-of-age story, and the hip-hop part of it is part of what gets her to step into her power, and I’m just so proud of that.”
Lathan took on the task of both directing and starring in her book-to-movie adaptation as Jay, Bri’s (Gray) mother, a recovering addict who struggles to keep her family together through financial hardships. During a 2021 episode of the “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered” podcast, Lathan opened up about her connection to “On the Come Up”‘s main character’s story and having family members who were addicted to drugs, so it was almost a no-brainer for her to take part in the film from both sides.
“It was challenging,” she tells us. “I fell in love with the character of Jay, the mom, when I was working on the script and doing rewrites and all of that. I just felt really compelled to play her, and I knew that would be extremely challenging, having those two hats. But I’ve been acting all my life, and I was like, ‘I got this.’ And yet still it was, ‘Oh, it’s time to go to hair and makeup?’ It was always a little disconcerting to have to switch hats because it’s a different part of your brain that you’re using. But all in all, it worked out.”
“On the Come Up” is now streaming on Paramount+.