First novel by Angie Thomas, 2017 The hate you give, was a defining cultural moment, a bestseller that humanized the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues of police brutality for many readers. Its 2018 adaptation, however, largely failed deliver on the achievements of the novel.
I imagine Thomas is quite happy that the screen adaptation of his second novel, 2019 On the way up, will not meet the same fate. The film, directed by actor-turned-director Sanaa Lathan, is efficient and charming and is sure to be a crowd pleaser.
On the way up is the story of Bri (Jamila Gray), a 16-year-old girl living in Garden Heights, the same fictional black neighborhood where The hate you give takes place – who wants to follow in his late father’s footsteps and build a legendary local rap career. When she enters “The Ring”, the local rap fight arena, to win her bona fide, she manages to become a local celebrity overnight. But it’s when Bri releases a viral hit that she’s forced to reckon with the possibility of having to let go of the people and ideals that made her successful in the first place.
The film opens with Bri’s mother, Jay (Lathan), a drug-addicted woman, abandoning Bri and her brother – a traumatic memory that Bri often revisits. By the time Bri is a teenager, Jay is sober but his daughter still doesn’t want to have much to do with her, whom Bri only calls by her first name. Bri’s main concerns are her best friends and her budding rap career. For extra money, Bri sells Skittles at school, but a confrontation with a school policeman serves as the key storyline for her first shot.
Whereas On the way up is aware of the big themes at the heart of the story – racism, sexism, over-policed black teenagers, black childhood and misogynoir – the film mostly nods to these topics without making statements about any of them or fully fleshing them out. . Instead, Lathan takes an interest in Bri’s specific story and treats it with sincerity and seriousness. The result is a delightful film that gestures to social commentary without quite landing the punch.
Newcomer Gray stands out and Lathan delivers a trademark moving performance, but it’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph who shines brightest as Aunt Pooh, Bri’s fierce and complicated aunt-manager. —EA
On the way up arrives on Paramount+ and in select theaters September 23.