Sliding into the rap battle ring on September 23 is Angie Thomas’s latest book-to-movie adaptation, On the Come Up, based on her bestselling novel. Initially set to stream exclusively on Paramount+, the studio has announced that the film will also have a limited theatrical release in sync with its streaming debut, following a successful launch at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie will open across the top 50 U.S. markets in tandem with the launch on Paramount+ in U.S., Canada, and Italy, with further international markets to follow later this year.
With a screenplay by Kay Oyegun (This Is Us), the film marks the feature directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan (Succession) who also co-stars as Jayda “Jay” Jackson. The film was executive produced by John Fischer (The Hate U Give); produced by Timothy M. Bourne (Love, Simon), Marty Bowen (The Maze Runner), Wyck Godfrey (First Man), Isaac Klausner (The Fault in Our Stars), Jay Marcus (The Hate U Give), Robert Teitel (Men of Honor), Angie Thomas, and George Tillman Jr. (The Hate U Give). It stars Jamila Gray (Sweet Conversation) as Brianna “Bri” Jackson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Aunt Pooh, Only Murders in the Building), Cliff “Method Man” Smith (Supreme, How High), Miles Gutierrez-Riley (Sonny, The Wilds), Cuyle Carvin (Tate, Cobra Kai), Michael Cooper Jr. (Malik, The Pros of Cons), and Nijah Brenea (Dominique, Rap Sh!t).
Brianna “Bri” Jackson (Gray) aspires to be one of the greatest rappers of all time, but as the daughter of the late underground rap legend Lawrence “Lawless” Jackson, who was murdered before breaking into the mainstream rap scene, Bri has some large shoes to fill. Life isn’t easy; with her mother, Jayda “Jay” Jackson (Lathan), unexpectedly losing her job, being labeled as a miscreant at school for “aggressive” behavior, and trying to make ends meet, Bri pours her frustrations into her first song. A song that goes viral for the wrong reasons lands Bri in the middle of a storm of controversy. But with bills piling up and homelessness a very real possibility, Bri no longer wants to make it—she has to make it.
On the Come Up is the second of Thomas’s books to hit the big screen; The Hate U Give came out in 2018. “I think the biggest difference was coming into this knowing a bit more about the process,” Thomas told PW. “This time around, I came in as an actual producer, not just a producer in name. I feel like the first movie was freshman year of high school where you’re still figuring out where to go, but this one was sophomore year for sure—I know a little more but I’m still not a senior yet.”
From sitting in on the Zoom calls during the casting process to only missing a week of on-set filming, Thomas was present every step of the way—a very collaborative process that stands in contrast to the solitude of writing a novel. “I’m in the backseat right behind Sanaa [Lathan] and I’m saying, ‘Hey maybe this way, and turn this way,’ ” Thomas said. “I love it because you get to see your story and characters through other people’s perspectives. It gives it more layers, and [makes it] even more beautiful, hopefully, than it originally was.”
Thomas was even able to watch some audition tapes. “There were at least 200 young ladies who auditioned for the role of Bri and I’m so happy with who we chose. [Gray] embodies Bri 1,000%,” she said, remembering moments on set during the rap battles. “I remember the [extras who were playing the] audience were amazed and blown away every time Bri opened her mouth. I remember specifically we were in the ring and this was [Gray’s] first time doing a lot of the battle raps and the first time anyone heard them. After [Lathan] yelled ‘cut’ [the extras] were like ‘oh that was so dope.’ It brought this feeling of really being in the rap battle environment. That was amazing to me.”
Optioned in 2018 just before the novel came out, the movie was four years in the making, thanks to complications due to the pandemic, needing to switch studios (it was originally with Fox), along with having to switch directors due to conflicting projects, the reality of its release hasn’t quite hit Thomas yet. “It’s funny because it only hit me last night around 11:30 p.m. when I tweeted it out, and again when I was on YouTube and saw an ad for On the Come Up came on,” Thomas said with a laugh. “When I first got the news, I’d been kind of pessimistic because there are so many great projects out there that never get out, but now that I’ve done press and seen the movie in theater, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah this is actually happening.’ ”
The film garnered early success at the Toronto International Film Festival, which Thomas was able to attend. “There is nothing quite like sitting in the audience with a room full of people and hearing their reactions to the movie,” she said. “The film festival itself was an amazing experience. We were doing press, and traffic was held up because of Taylor Swift and Hillary Clinton. I mean, if you’re gonna be held up for any reason those two are good reasons.” HAHA
Readers may be disappointed to know that Bri’s grandparents will not be making an appearance outside of the book’s pages. “But our screenwriter did a phenomenal job to make sure the emotional thread that connects Bri to her grandparents is still there,” Thomas said. “Even though they aren’t in the movie we still understand what she felt like when her mom wasn’t there.” Another difference readers might notice is what happens to Aunt Pooh in the movie. “I’m not gonna spoil it but there are [emotional] scenes that really got me.”
Fans who are eager for the movie and need something to tide them over until its release can listen to Thomas’s hip hop playlist, which include songs and artists that inspired some of the raps in the novel. “I think it’s obvious to everybody who my favorite rapper is, and that’s 2Pac, I’ve had books with titles influenced by 2Pac. I also love J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody—and I’m not just saying that because she wrote the raps in the movie,” Thomas said. “She did a phenomenal job of paying homage to what I wrote in the book by putting a new twist on it.”
Readers can also look forward to a new middle grade novel by Thomas, Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy. “I’m super excited because it’s my first time doing middle grade and my first time doing fantasy. It’s nice to write something a little different, so no guns in this one but I do have a dragon!”
Thomas hopes her message of being outspoken is able to reach the hearts and minds of audiences. “I wrote On the Come Up in response to book bannings that have been taking place against my work and people always ask me, ‘How do you feel about your book being banned?’ and I tell them to read On the Come Up because it’s a story of a girl who is criticized for how she says things as opposed to people listening to what she’s saying. Let’s not pay so much attention to how people say things, let’s pay more attention to what is being said and what people are experiencing. This is my way of speaking out on that.”