Sanaa Lathan is no stranger to captivating the camera. Her roles as Ella in “Love & Basketball,” “Brown Sugar” and a number of films and TV shows that span a 25-year career are proof of that.
But in her latest project, “On the Come Up,” we get to see things from Lathan’s lens as she makes her directorial debut and also stars as Jay, the mother of up-and-coming teen rapper Bri.
Lathan was eager to take on this project, which is based on Angie Thomas’ YA novel of the same name. So much so that she said it was reminiscent of how she felt when she landed her first starring role.
“It was between me and like three other directors,” Lathan told HuffPost. “But when I finally got the part of director, I cried like I cried when I got ‘Love & Basketball.’”
In the film, 16-year-old Bri is hoping to follow in her late father’s footsteps by using battle rap as a platform to make a name for herself. Bri has a complicated relationship with her mom de ella, Jay, stemming from Jay’s addiction to heroin. Though Jay has recovered from her addiction, life begins to take a turn when financial pressures, police brutality and the possibility of losing her daughter arrive at her doorstep.
Lathan said she knew the script was good as soon as she started reading it. The women in the story captured her heart almost instantly.
“I was captivated by Bri. I saw a lot of my younger self in Bri. I saw a lot of women that I know and love in Jay and Pooh. And I loved the whole idea of a coming-of-age story about a little girl in the world of battle rap,” she said.
“I hadn’t really seen that. And battle rap is a whole ‘nother genre of hip-hop that to me is fascinating and still very much alive today. And there were so many elements that made me excited about telling it.”
Though it was a challenge to wear two hats for the film, Lathan was by no means unfamiliar with what goes into directing. Her father is award-winning director Stan Lathan. Dreams of stepping behind the camera started to pop up early for her, and she studied film while attending Yale School of Drama for graduate school.
Acknowledging that she probably had more experience on set than a lot of filmmakers, she started mentoring directors about seven years ago. It was then that Lathan realized she had a lot to offer. So she started studying with a director of photography. During the pandemic, she directed her first film of her — a short that was never released, starring her dog of her in her home of her.
“I just showed it to my agent, who was a friend of mine. I wasn’t showing it to him to submit me. And he just started submitting me. And next thing I knew, I had the opportunity to pitch for ‘On the Come Up,’” she said.
Filming “On the Come Up” wasn’t easy, Lathan said. She leaned on her dad de ella and “Love&Basketball” director Gina Prince-Bythewood for advice, especially when it came to the business and finance side. Her dad de ella watched a few rough cuts and attended the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September.
“It just makes me just so happy to see him so happy,” she said. “I think he’s as awed as I am at the fact that I’m on this journey now.”
Lathan realized that the perfect storm of the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, Time’s Up, the rise of streaming, and the demand for greater representation in Hollywood set the stage for her to finally step into a dream that’s been a long time coming. And “On the Come Up ‘couldn’t have been more perfect for her directorial debut, according to Lathan.
“One of the beauties of this film is what is so familiar to me, is that the women are the backbones of a lot of families. The community of women raises generations up, and this is kind of an homage to that family,” she said. “My grandmother and my aunts and cousins, they raised us all, and that’s a very common thing. And I want women to recognize that and feel like they are being seen in that respect. As well as the journey of Bri stepping into her power, through finding out her authentic voice. That is a message that men, women, old, young, every race, that can be held by everyone.”
Lathan, of course, plans on continuing acting as she reunites with the original cast of “Best Man” for the spin-off series premiering later this year on Peacock. But she also plans to keep directing for at least the next few years, if not longer.
“I just want to continue to tell stories that challenge me as an actor, as a director,” she said. “I want to hone my vision as a director and hone my skills and just continue to tell these stories, and hopefully, people will connect.”