“I could have been killed for a pack of Skittles!” These are the legitimately angry words of Bri (Jamila C. Grey), a talented 16-year-old rapper who, after surreptitiously selling candy to her classmates at her majority-white high school, comes under attack from fans and enthusiasts. from school. violent security guards. It’s also one of several moments in actress-turned-director Sanaa Lathan’s feature film debut, “On the Come Up,” which, in an attempt to imbue its narrative world with some kind of meaningful politics, blithely references Trayvon’s murder. Martin.
Martin is, of course, just one of many, but he is invoked as a kind of general representative of black youth who put up with racial violence at the hands of officers. Lathan’s film, adapted from the 2019 novel of the same name by “The Hate U Give” author Angie Thomas, is positioned as a coming-of-age drama that follows young Bri as she navigates the world of battle rap in the fictional Garden Heights housing projects. Unfortunately, it is these exact types of hollow parallels that make up most of its presupposed substance.
Bri is the daughter of the late rapper and beloved neighborhood figure Lawless, who was murdered just as he was on the brink of even greater success. Her mother, Jay (Sanaa Lathan), has been in recovery from drug use for a few years, a fact often cruelly thrown back at Bri when she’s up against other battle rappers in the (literal) ring. Her precariousness marks the entirety of Bri’s life, from Jay’s absence during her childhood to her older brother having to drop out of the master’s program to help support her family.
It becomes clear that while Bri has the lyrical skills and spirit to carry on her father’s legacy, the urgency of her everyday life is getting closer to her motivations as a rapper. After decimating Milez (Justin Martin), a former local rapper-turned-popular hit, in the battle ring, Bri meets Supreme (Method Man), a savvy administrator who is quick to spread the resources that the young woman has. and his family desperately need. Also within this orbit is Bri’s aunt Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Rudolph), her manager and mentor, who is quick to talk about her hustle without having enough to show for it.
With such a hackneyed story, exhausted even, the contributions made by “On the Come Up” are too limited. It feels old-fashioned, both in scope and form. The characters here are reduced to clichéd stereotypes, a fact all the more ironic given that Lathan’s film is quick to use such stereotypes to shape the heart of his story. With the exception of a handful of scenes focused on Bri and her friends and family in more intimate moments, the film’s dialogue and plot are obvious and lack both identity and pizzazz.
There is a lack of life to “On the Come Up” and compared to other well-received, if not classic, films of the recent past that cover much of the same story and character trajectories (“8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow” in particular come to mind), Lathan’s film lacks soul and spirit. As he fashions the energy to drag both his audience and himself across his finish line, he does so seemingly without belief. much in itself. Or perhaps more appropriately, a belief that is very wrong.
Those familiar with the film adaptation of “The Hate U Give” will note the unchanging nature of author Thomas’s politics, the heavy-handed way they move and refuse to refine themselves outside of their own overeager announcement. It is not only black death, but black life, which is realized here in the most reductive way. At its core, this is a film whose story is more concerned with the twin powers of respectability and authenticity, a reality that also comes to expression as an unintended meta-commentary on the work itself.
At best, “On the Come Up” lacks the voice, artistry, and perspective to reshape its source material; at worst, it is content, even celebrates, with its own underdeveloped nature. It’s yet another addition to the now burgeoning output of movies that claim to deliver meaningful noir stories on screen, but instead deliver a confusing tangle of ideas that, frankly, don’t add up to much.
‘On the rise’
Classified: PG-13, for strong language, sexual references, thematic elements, some violence, and drug material
Execution time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release; streaming on Paramount+