Content warning: Mentions of police brutality, systemic racism, and violence.
Award-winning actress Sanaa Lathan has adapted author Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel On the Come Up, which focuses on African American identity through aspiring teen rapper Brianna “Bri” Jackson, played by Jamila Gray. Lathan gives it her all in this ambitious directorial debut of the same name, in which she also plays a major on-screen role.
As the film opens, viewers are thrust into the turbulent world of Bri, an aspiring teen rapper desperate to follow in the footsteps of her late father, who is a rap legend in her local, low-income community of Garden Heights. Bri, who struggles with personal troubles at home and at school, finds her voice in ‘The Ring,’ a boxing gym that is repurposed into a rap battle arena at night.
Living with her older brother and mother, a recovering addict who struggles to pay the bills, Bri constantly juggles how to best support her family in light of her budding rap career. When the success of her aunt’s talent management dwindles, Bri is hesitantly swayed into accepting a world of wealth and luxury that she has been promised as long as she pretends to be someone she isn’t, and doesn’t really want to be.
Throughout the film, Lathan weaves together an abundance of heavy themes, including financial insecurity, absentee parenting, and the loss of a loved one, as the protagonist becomes increasingly weighed down by the consequences of her actions in light of her traumatic family history.
Race also plays a large part in Bri’s experiences as a young Black girl in what appears to be modern-day America. At school, she is the target of frequent microaggressions and acts of discrimination by the administration as well as by law enforcement officials.
In fact, one of the earliest conflicts in the film is initiated when Bri is violently handcuffed by two armed police officers in the halls of the school and is subsequently suspended. The officers receive no discipline at all. Similarly, when students incite a riot at the same school later on in the film, the school administration pins most of the blame on Bri, while the primarily white students who initiated the riot do not face any penalties.
Lathan, Thomas, and the all-Black main cast of the film reached into their own experiences as racial minorities in the making of these scenes. The constant circling back to the theme of race is what Lathan does best in her direction. However, many other pieces of the thematic puzzle are often pushed to the side for the necessary advancement of the plot. The main ideas of the film would have been more effectively portrayed if the story focused on several large thematic events rather than seeking to delve deeply into every aspect of Bri’s complicated life.
Despite the film’s intense subject matter, it isn’t just one big trauma-fest. One of the best aspects of the viewing experience is the portrayal of Bri’s relationship with her friends Sonny, played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley, and Malik, played by Michael Cooper Jr. The playful and teasing dynamic between these memorable characters brings lighthearted breaks to a content-dense main storyline and allows for romantic subplots to bloom. With multiple moments of laugh-out-loud line delivery, the film finds humour between the darkness, allowing the audience to connect with the characters on a personal level as well.
Although the film isn’t perfect, with Lathan’s direction lacking some thematic cohesivity, On the Come Up is a thought-provoking film that is easily digestible for young-adult audiences that can relate to Bri as they see her gradual coming of age. At its heart of hearts, it is a film about family, friendship, and finding yourself, about learning to make decisions that are authentic to you when circumstances and people you trust seem to pull you astray.
On the Come Up deals with themes of aspiration and the constant reach for something more in a society that suppresses your most valiant efforts to lift yourself up. And it deals with the idea that when the world seems too much to bear, you have it in you to find the beat, get on your feet, and achieve what you’ve always known you wanted.