On The Come Up provides a universal story of self-discovery while highlighting the strength of Black women. Here’s our On The Come Up review.
One of our more highly-anticipated films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival was On The Come Up.
Set in the fictitious neighbourhood of Garden Heights, affectionately known as “The Garden”, On The Come Up tells the story of 16-year-old rapper Bri, also known as Lil Law, who is looking to follow in the footsteps of her father and local rap legend Lawless. It’s an 8 Mile-like story as the young phenom navigates the local battle rap scene with the goal of making some extra money and becoming a star. With the pressure of helping her mother Jay (Sanaa Lathan) make ends meet, she is tempted to give in to the trappings of the music industry in order to fulfill her dreams.
While we’ve seen quite a few hip-hop based feature films before, On The Come Up stands out for a number of reasons. Not only does the film have a female lead, but it is centered around a trio of strong Black female characters, including Jay and Bri’s aunt and manager Aunt Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who doubles as a local enforcer and gang member. Meanwhile, male actors are seen in more supporting roles which is in stark contrast to the oftentimes male-dominated culture of hip-hop.
The film explores topics like racism, young love, drug addiction, gang violence, and the pursuit of ones dreams. As the film unfolds we find there’s a thin line between strength and “weakness” as each female actor contrasts moments of vulnerability with moments of standing up for themselves.
The film can also be seen as a window into the darker side of the music industry where artists are tempted by executives to compromise their identity, message and sound in order to sell records.
Aiding in telling the story are the score, featuring bouncy hip-hop production and modern mainstream hip-hop sounds, and Sanaa Lathan who made her directorial debut with this film. From close-ups of Bri’s face to poetic internal dialogue, audiences are given a brief glimpse into Bri’s mind, helping us to connect even more with the lead character.
But while the score, directing and screenplay are well-executed, what makes the film special is Gray’s acting. While there are many household names among the cast, Gray steals the show as she carries most of the scenes she appears in. True to the story, she convincingly portrays a young woman who is wise beyond her years, forced to grow up too soon while discovering who she really is outside of the shadow of her father and the industry. Without having to deliver a single line, Gray uses her eyes and facial expressions to successfully convey a myriad of human emotions. It is exciting to see what roles she lands in the future as she has proved her abilities as a lead.
Lathan’s acting also stands out as she portrays a former drug addict who is forced to deal with her demons, ultimately finding her voice and taking back her power as a mother. Randolph shines as she portrays a boss, mama bear and protector with a soft spot for her family. We also have to mention Michael Cooper Jr. who is charming as the bestfriend Malik who at a young age, demonstrates a mature, consistent and heartwarming love for Bri. As they make the transition from bestfriends to love interests, their chemistry, cuteness and innocence almost make you wish you could be a teenager again.
But don’t let the low riders, pimped out cars and rap battles fool you. To quote Dead Prez, it’s bigger than hip-hop. While the film provides a realistic look at our culture as it both highlights and defies conventional stereotypes surrounding both hip-hop and Blackness, this isn’t just a hip-hop movie, a Black movie, or a “female movie”. In fact, he story is so universal you forget it’s female-driven. True to its name, the movie is about the come up―the journey of finding yourself and the mistakes you sometimes make along the way; something both male and female audiences, and people of all ages, can connect with.
Similar to the hip-hop culture within which it is set, the film entertains, challenges, inspires, educates, and enlightens. As we say in hip-hop, “Real recognize real” and when it comes to films we’ve seen in 2022, On The Come Up is as real as it gets.