Iin the early 2000s, Sana Latan broke through as one of the most attractive young performers in a new breed of romantic comedy that transcended the usual cycle of the day. Before, it seemed as if the stars of romantic comedies had to be white by decree – and suddenly there were wonderful new films with new faces like Lathan, who was great in films like Love and basketball and interracial romance Something new. It may seem like nothing now, but at the time it was as if the heavens had opened. Movies seemed to be moving towards new and better days.
In terms of opportunities for black directors and performers, change has not happened as quickly or as profoundly as we thought in the early 2000s. But Lathan stayed on the scene as an actor, and now she’s helping open the door even more to the younger generation with her directorial debut, On Exit. Brianna “Bry” Jackson, played by charming newcomer Jamilla Gray, lives with her mother Jay (Lathan) and older brother Trey (Tite Mackin Jr.) in the fictional town of Garden Heights, which a title card at the beginning of the film tells us, that it’s “somewhere in America” - that might mean California or New Jersey, but it’s not necessarily where dreams come true.
Still, 16-year-old Bree is holding her own: Her late father was the most famous rapper to ever come out of Garden Heights, and she knows she’s gifted enough to follow in his footsteps. Her Aunt Pooh (played by the always sizzling Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who guides her budding career, enters her into a local rap competition – “Hunger Games of Hip-Hop” is how Bree describes it, and there her father get your start But with the spotlight on her, Brie chokes, undone by her opponent’s aggressiveness. Over the next few days, her life takes a turn for the worse: Bree earns extra money by selling candy out of her backpack at school, but because she is one of the few black students, the school police suspect her of selling drugs; when she refuses to let them search her backpack, they roughly knock her to the ground, pinning her hands behind her back. The principal suspends her, unfairly. That same day, Bree learns that Jay, who has been sober for three years after kicking her drug addiction, has lost her job, meaning she has no money to pay for food, rent or electricity.
Jamila S. Gray in “On the Come Up”
It’s the setup for a type of story you’ve seen before, but Lathan—work from a script by Kay Oyegun, adapted from Angie Thomas’ popular young adult novel— manages to keep it fresh. For one thing, the rules are different for a female rapper: if her act isn’t hard enough, she might not attract an audience. Although Bree’s style is muscular and poetic, there’s nothing gangster about it, and an ambitious manager (played by Method Man) tries to turn her into something she’s not. On Exit is honest about all the things male artists can get away with while women are left to forge their own path – though he also admits that taking this new path is the better path to success.
There’s also a sweet but not necessarily smooth budding romance between Bree and her longtime boyfriend Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.). When these two kiss for the first time, we hear Brie’s thoughts in voiceover—“I’ve wanted to do this since eighth grade”—and a little later Malik says aloud, “I’ve wanted to do this since fifth grade.” It’s a witty note, a nod to the way girls take their time deciding who’s worthy of their affection.And the film ensures that Bree’s other close friend, Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Reilly), also has a shot at romance: he finds it with Miles (Justin Martin), a rapper who has cultivated a smooth romantic image, but who knows his own heart and isn’t afraid to act on his feelings. On Exit is thoughtful and generous entertainment and a reminder of how hard it can be when you’re young to figure out who you really are. Each generation has to decide this for itself, but nothing can change if it doesn’t.
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