Aside from a few examples, Black girlhood has all been but ignored in the cinema landscape. There are a few outliers; Crooklyn, Alma’s Rainbow, Pariah, Selah, and the Spades, and Eve’s Bayou come to mind. However, if you consider Hollywood overall, Black teen girls don’t exist in their own stories. Sanaa Lathan’s directorial debut, On the Come Up, adds a much-needed tale to a very sparse catalog. Adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Angie Thomas, On the Come Up follows 16-year-old Bri (vibrant newcomer Jamila Gray). The teen is trying to find her footing in the music world by stepping out of the shadow of her late father, who was killed just as his rap career was taking off.
Like most Black girls, Bri is no stranger to adultification.
Her mother, Jay (a hauntingly good Lathan), abandoned her and her older brother Trey (Titus Makin) in the early years of their childhoods when her heroin addiction became too intoxicating for her to focus on other things. Jay has been clean for several years when On the Come Up opens. However, she, Bri, and Trey live in a cramped and crumbling apartment in their Garden Heights neighborhood, struggling to make ends meets.
Though she's determined to look ahead toward her future as a rapper, Bri has not forgotten the pain of her past.
Her mother’s history is still a wound. As a result, she leans on her Aunt Pooh (a magnificently good Da’Vine Joy Randolph) as a mother figure and her manager. However, when Pooh’s personal drama begins to interfere with Bri’s desire for success, the teen leans on her father’s old friend, famed manager Supreme (a charismatic Clifford “Method Man” Smith), whose plans for Brie don’t quite fit into the dream that she saw for herself.
Thomas’ nearly 500-page novel has much to draw from, but that’s the issue. The result is a film that is overly long oft cliche at times. Despite a good grasp of classic film direction, Lathan could not confront some of the issues. In addition to its overly long run time, good chunks of the dialogue felt entirely too on the nose. However, the trifecta of Lathan, Gray, and Randolph, along with poems and rhymes by rapper Rapsody, keeps the film elevated.
There is a lot of good in ‘On the Come Up,’ and Lathan works hard to keep the film together. Bri’s burgeoning romance with her best friend Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.) is a warm and fuzzy romance that Black girls don’t often get. However, addressing so many themes, from misogynoir, financial insecurity, addiction, gang culture, and the predatory music industry, all in one film would be a lot for anyone to handle. Also, underdeveloped storylines like a side romance involving Bri’s other bestie Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), add length but not substance to the film.
Still, the tenderness between the women in the film, the strength of Randolph and Lathan’s acting, and the Love & Basketball star’s ability to truly focus on Bri in the fullness of her humanity and experiences give On the Come Up a rock-solid foundation.
On The Come Up premiered Sept. 8, 2022 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film will debut Sept. 23 on Paramount+