“You could have killed me for a pack of Skittles!” Those are the justifiably angry words of 16-year-old Bri (Jamila C. Grey), a talented young rapper who — after secretly selling candy to her classmates at her majority-white high school sold – being attacked by the school’s overzealous and overzealous students violent security forces. It’s also one of several moments in Sanaa Lathan’s debut feature film On the Come Up, which flippantly references the murder of Trayvon Martin in an attempt to imbue its storyline with some kind of meaningful politics.
Martin, of course, is just one of many, but has been portrayed as sort of an all-encompassing representative of black youth subjected to racist violence at the hands of officials. Positioned as a coming-of-age drama, Lathan’s film, adapted from the 2019 novel of the same name by The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas, follows young Bri as she navigates Bri’s fictional housing projects the world of battle rapping is navigating garden heights. Unfortunately, it’s those hollow parallels that make up most of its assumed substance.
Bri is the daughter of the late rapper and popular neighbor Lawless, who was killed while he was on the verge of even bigger success. Her mother, Jay (Sanaa Lathan), has been recovering from drug use for a number of years, a fact Bri is often cruelly thrown in his face when facing other battle rappers in the (literal) ring. Precariousness has shaped Bri’s entire life, from the absence of Jay during her childhood to her older brother having to drop out of his master’s degree to support her family.
It clarifies that while Bri has both the lyrical ability and spirit to carry on her father’s legacy, the urgency of her daily life interferes with her motivation as a rapper. After decimating a former local rapper turned mainstream hit named Milez (Justin Martin) in the fight ring, Bri is introduced to Supreme (Method Man), a savvy manager who quickly expands the resources available to the young girl and her need family so badly. Also in this orbit is Bri’s Aunt Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Rudolph), her manager and mentor, who is quick to talk about her hustle without really showing it.
With a story this well-worn, even exhausted, the contributions On the Come Up make are too limited. It feels dated, both in scope and form. Characters are reduced to cliche stereotypes here, a fact all the more ironic given that Lathan’s film is quick to use such stereotypes to shape the heart of its story. With the exception of a handful of scenes that focus on Bri and her friends and family at more intimate moments, the film’s dialogue and plot are overt and lack both identity and dynamism.
There’s a lifelessness to “On the Come Up” and compared to other well-received if not classic films from the recent past that cover much of the same stories and characters (“8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow” fall to me especially one), Lathan’s film lacks soul and spirit. While it summons up the energy to pull both its audience and itself across the finish line, it does so seemingly without much belief in itself. Or perhaps more appropriately, a belief that is deeply misguided.
Those familiar with the feature adaptation of The Hate U Give will note the immutable nature of author Thomas’ politics, the heavy-footed way in which they bluster around and refuse to refine outside of their own over-zealous pronouncement . Not only the black death, but the black life is realized here in the most reduced forms. At its core, this is a film whose story is primarily concerned with the dual powers of seriousness and authenticity, a reality that also expresses itself as an unintended meta-commentary on the work itself.
At best, “On the Come Up” lacks the voice, craft, and perspective to reimagine its source material; at worst it is content – even solemn – with its own undeveloped nature. It’s another addition to the now burgeoning production of films that purport to offer meaningful black stories on screen, but instead deliver a jumble of ideas that frankly don’t add up to much.
‘On the way up’
Rated: PG-13, for strong language, sexual innuendo, thematic elements, some violence and drug material
Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes
To play: Usually release; Streaming on Paramount+
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-22/on-the-come-up-review-sanaa-lathan-paramountplus ‘On the Come Up’ review: Messy, derivative Black family drama