September 23, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sanaa Lathan
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional inner-city U.S. neighborhood of Garden Heights and briefly in Atlanta, the dramatic film “On the Come Up” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl, who’s an aspiring rapper involved in rap battles, has to decide if she will follow her manager’s advice to present a false image of herself as a “gangster rapper,” in order to become popular and get a record deal.
Culture Audience: “On the Come Up” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of hip-hop culture and coming-of-age stories where teenagers try to define their identities.
Based on Angie Thomas’ 2019 bestselling novel of the same name, “On the Come Up” is a fairly entertaining but predictable drama about a 16-year-old inner-city girl who wants to become a rapper and gets involved in her local rap battle scene. There are better movies about aspiring rappers who do rap battles, but at least “On the Come Up” centers on a rare female perspective that’s refreshing from the cliché machismo in rap. The movie’s appealing performances overcome some flawed film editing.
“On the Come Up” is the feature-film directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan, who helmed the movie with a lot of heart, but the movie needed some technical finesse. Some of the scenes are choppily edited, so that instead of appearing seamless, the scene transitions look abrupt and don’t flow well with the story. However, the movie (whose adapted screenplay was written by Kay Oyegun) excels when it comes to the correct casting choices, since all of the cast members give believable performances. “On the Come Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
The protagonist of “On the Come Up” is 16-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson (played by Jamila C. Gray, making an impressive feature-film debut), a talented writer who wants to pursue a career as a rapper. She lives in an unnamed U.S. state in the South in an inner-city neighborhood called Garden Heights. Bri is polite but outspoken and not afraid to stand up for herself.
Bri and her older brother Trey (played by Titus Makin) spent much of their childhood in foster care, because their single mother Jada “Jay” Jackson (played by Lathan) abandoned them and was a heroin addict for many years. Jay has now been clean and sober for the past three years and has regained custody of Bri, but Jay is struggling financially. Trey, who is now in his early 20s, quit a master’s degree program to get a job to help with the family finances. He currently works at a low-paying job at a restaurant called Sal’s.
Bri’s father was a semi-famous rapper called Lawless, who died when she was a very young child, so Bri never got to know him. His cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. Jay met Lawless (whose real name was Lawrence) when she was hired to be a “video vixen” in one of his music videos. Lawless was the type of rapper who was on his way to becoming a big star, but he never quite reached those heights and therefore never became wealthy.
In Garden Heights though, Lawless is kind of a legend in the neighborhood. Garden Heights even has a street mural dedicated to Lawless that Bri often passes when she’s walking down that street. As an aspiring rapper, Bri feels that she’s living in the shadow of her deceased father, but she’s also proud of being his daughter. That’s why her chosen rap name is Lil Law. Even though rap is a big part of her life, Bri has a geeky side to her, because she’s a self-described “Star Wars nerd.”
Bri is currently a student at Helen McCoy High School, which has a racial integration program, where low-income kids (who are usually African American and Latin) are bused to the school, which has a large population of middle-class white students. To make some money, Bri sells candy to some of her classmates. Her two best friends are also her schoolmates: laid-back Malik (played by Michael Cooper Jr.) and gossipy Sonny (played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley), who is very caught up in social media and viral videos that are trending.
Jay’s younger sister Patricia, who’s nicknamed Aunt Pooh (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), supports Bri’s dreams to become a famous rapper, and has volunteered to become Bri’s manager. Aunt Poo is also struggling financially, so she sees Bri as a potentially big ticket to a better life as the manager of a rich and successful rapper. Aunt Poo is inexperienced as an artist manager, but she tries to make up for that inexperience with a lot of sassy bravado and street smarts.
In Garden Heights, people gather on a regular basis for rap battles, which are set up like boxing matches. But instead of throwing punches, the opponents in the ring throw insults at each other in impromptu rap lyrics. The winner (whoever gets the louder cheers from the audience) receives a three-figure cash prize, usually $500. A local radio DJ named DJ Hype (played by Mike Epps) is the main emcee for these rap battles in Garden Heights. Bri compares getting in this rap battle ring to being like “‘The Hunger Games’ of hip-hop.”
Bri’s very first rap battle is a disaster for her, because she’s too nervous and freezes up when it’s her turn to speak. Unfortunately, some people in the audience took videos of this embarrassing moment. The videos go viral. Instead of being defeated by this setback, Bri is determined to win in her next rap battle.
Her opponent in this next battle is an up-and-coming rapper in his late teens or early 20s named Milez (played by Justin Martin), who is the son of a smooth-talking, successful music manager named Supreme (played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith). Supreme is at the rap battle that has Bri and Milez facing off with each other. It just so happens that Supreme has an indirect connection to Bri, because he used to be the manager of her late father, Lawless.
The outcome of the rap battle between Bri and Milez won’t be revealed in this review (it’s easy to guess), but it’s enough to say that Supreme is so impressed with Bri’s rapping skills, he offers to become her manager. Supreme tells Bri that he can take her career to the next level by getting her a record deal and making her a star. Bri accepts Supreme’s offer. Where does that leave Aunt Poo? Feeling rejected and bitter.
Meanwhile, “On the Come Up” has a subplot about law enforcement brutality by security officers at Helen McCoy High School. One day, Bri is walking in a school hallway, when two security officials named Officer Long (played by Malachi Malik) and Officer Tate (played by Cuyle Carvin) approach Bri and demand to see what’s in her backpack. Bri exercises her right to refuse, since these security officers don’t have a warrant or any reason to search her personal belongings.
Officer Long (who is African American) and Officer Tate (who is white) immediately escalate the situation. Officer Long, who is the more aggressive one, ends up tackling Bri in the hallway, and he places handcuffs on her. It’s unlawful brutality (especially since Bri is unarmed), but the school sides with the security officers and gives Bri a two-week suspension.
There are racial overtones to the unfair way that Bri was treated. In a meeting with the school’s Principal Rhodes (played by L.A. Winters), who is white, the principal talks to Bri and her mother Jay in a condescending manner. The principal, who seems to have a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward Bri, says that teachers have been complaining that Bri is disruptive in class. These are vague accusations that the principal never backs up with evidence.
When Bri tells Principal Rhodes that the school’s security officers target African American and Latin students more by than the white students. the principal is dismissive of this complaint. Bri finds out Officer Long felt he had a right to search Bri’s backpack because of rumors that Bri is a drug dealer. Bri vehemently denies that she’s involved with drugs (she’s telling the truth), and she says that she only sells candy out of her backpack. The principal shows a racial bias by seeming skeptical of Bri, but Principal Rhodes offers to do an investigation.
Jay is outraged that Bri has gotten suspended when Bri didn’t do anything wrong. Malik and Sonny want to have student protests against law enforcement brutality, and they want to start a viral video campaign showing Bri getting unlawfully manhandled by Officer Long. Bri refuses, because she thinks getting involved in protests will damage her rap career. During her two-week suspension, Bri’s career progresses, and she begins to wonder if going back to high school is really necessary when she could start being a full-time rapper.
Bri ends up making some money by winning rap battles. The money (which Bri gives to her mother) comes in handy, because Jay has recently been laid off from her church job due to budget cuts. Jay is having a hard time finding a new job. Things have gotten so bad, the apartment’s electricity has been turned off due to non-payment of this ultility bill.
Supreme dazzles Bri with big promises and sets up her very first recording session after he whisks away Bri, Malik, Sonny and Milez to a trip to Atlanta. During this trip, Bri meets an up-and-coming rapper named Infamous Millz (played by Lil Yachty), who is also from Garden Heights. And two romances develop between the young people in the story. One romance is more predictable than the other.
Bri’s blossoming rap career comes at a high price though: Supreme has convinced her to create a fake image of being a gangster rapper. Bri doesn’t carry guns, is not involved with crime, and has never been arrested. However, Supreme tells Bri that most people who buy rap music are suburban white kids, and the only way to become a successful rap artist is to make the type of music that will scare these kids’ parents. Needless to say, Bri’s family members and friends think she’s making a big mistake by not being her authentic self as an artist. Lathan and Gray have some well-acted scenes together when Jay and Bri have some disagreements with each other.
“On the Come Up” has some realism in how the music business works when it comes to rap, but the movie definitely takes a glossy view of how much sexism is ingrained in rap, a music genre that’s dominated by black male artists. There’s only one scene in the movie that shows a female rapper other than Bri. It’s when Bri and a young woman named Latrondra (played by Samantha Peel)—who uses the rap name Mystique and looks like a Nicki Minaj wannabe—do a spontaneous rap battle against each other in a parking lot. Latrondra/Mystique is never seen or heard from again in the movie.
Bri also doesn’t struggle much before she signs with an influential and experienced manager. As an attractive underage teenager, Bri would definitely be a target for predatory people in the music business. However, “On the Come Up” presents a very sheltered version of the harassment and discrimination that Bri would face as a teenage girl who wants to become a rapper. She gets a few snide and sexist comments, but that’s about it.
Because “On the Come Up” is rated PG-13 (suitable for people ages 13 and up) by the Motion Picture Association of America, the language in the movie is very tame compared to the langauge of hip-hop culture in real life. Therefore, the lyrics in the rap battles are sometimes a little corny in “On the Come Up.” For uncensored and more adult-oriented lyrics in a rap battle movie, check out the 2017 drama “Bodied,” or for a more mainstream option, the Oscar-winning 2002 drama “8 Mile,” starring Eminem in a semi-autobiographical role.
Much of what holds “On the Come Up” together is the winning performance of Gray. Even with Bri’s realistic flaws, viewers will constantly be rooting for Bri to succeed. It’s a typical underdog story in many ways, but “On the Come Up” presents a unique and engaging story of a female rapper—the type of artist who rarely gets to be the star protagonist in a feature film.
Paramount Pictures released “On the Come Up” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on September 23, 2022.