On the Come Up, directed by actress-turned-director Sanaa Lathan and written by Zora Howard (Premature) and Kay Oyegun, is based on the book by acclaimed author Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give). The film explores the many facets of Black girlhood through hip-hop music and the general music industry. The novel is 464 pages, and the movie tries to cram all that information into two hours, which sometimes overshadows the messaging. But what works is that it speaks to a demographic that is often ignored and the culture of rap that is seldom explored from a woman’s perspective.
The film starts with Bri (Jamila Gray) being abandoned by her drug-addicted mother Jay (Lathan). The memory traumatizes her throughout her adolescence until the point she’s introduced as a 16-year old She’s also mourning the death of her father, a former rapper called Law from the Garden Heights. She wants to be just like her father and frequents “The Ring,” a place she calls the “Hunger Games of rap,” where lyricists battle for cash prizes. Her Aunt Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who still takes part in gang life, guides her as a sort of manager. On her first attempt to battle at the ring, Bri chokes. However, she finally wins and quickly becomes an overnight local celebrity.
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She lives with her mother now. Jay is sober and working menial jobs to make ends meet. At school, Bri sells M&M’s and Skittles to help gain some pocket money, but a run-in with school officers become suspicious and they think she’s selling drugs. When the cops ask to look in her bag, she resists and is subsequently slammed to the ground in a use of excessive force and suspended from school.
Pooh gives Bri excuses as to why her career isn’t moving faster and Bri loses faith in her aunt’s ability to manage her. She eventually links up with Supreme (Cliff “Method Man” Smith), who promises her studio time, fame and more money than she’s ever imagined. On her journey with Supreme, she learns the price of selling her soul and that not all money is good money.
Thematically, On the Come Up says a lot of things at once. Hints of race, gender, racism and misogynoir are there, and each one of those elements isn’t given enough time to be fleshed out. The film plays like it’s racing against the clock to get it all in before the time is up. But life as a Black girl/woman is very much all at once, isn’t it? These things will happen at least once in your lifetime. Seeing a bigger examination of women in the music industry would have made the movie stronger, but the script doesn’t do enough with that to get the point across.
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What’s odd is there aren’t many positive Black female influences in Bri’s story. Sure, they are all good people, but her mother is a recovering addict who is struggling financially. Her aunt is still involved in gang activities, and even another woman who Bri later battle raps is considered a fake and phony Barbie doll industry plant. I haven’t read the book, so it’s unclear if that’s an aspect left out, if it’s missing from the book as well. Either way, stories by Angie Thomas always provide a window into the Black girl experience. Working with Howard is a good collaboration because after having seen Premature, she knows how to speak to the young, Black demographic.
On the Come Up has an old-school quality to it regarding the shooting style and aesthetic. John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers, clearly influenced Lathan’s direction. She balances that with a performance that is vulnerable and sincere. It’s some of her best work. Randolph should be among Hollywood’s A-list and it’s a shame she isn’t right now.
Young women need to protect themselves from those who only see their talents as profit and force them to play into a persona that’s not true to who they really are. While On the Come Up is flawed, it has a voice that is so loud, the messaging here cannot be denied.