Lathan, Sanaa 1971–
Sanaa Lathan 1971–
Ivy-League-trained actress Sanaa Lathan starred in the acclaimed 2000 movie Love and Basketball opposite Omar Epps, a role for which she won ardent critical praise. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Lathan had honed her talents in several off-Broadway productions. Now she’s gaining recognition through her work in television and feature films.
Lathan was born in 1971, in New York City, the daughter of Stan Lathan, who would earn his first television director’s credit the next year with an episode of San ford and Son. He went on to work on such highly-rated shows as Barney Miller, Eight Is Enough, Hill Street Blues, Fame, and Moesha. Lathan’s mother was a professional dancer who appeared in a Broadway production of the musical Timbutku with Eartha Kitt, among other roles. When Lathan, the eldest of their five children, felt herself pulled toward a performing-arts career herself, her father discouraged her and tried to steer her into a more stable profession. But Lathan persevered, and, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, won a spot at the prestigious Yale School of Drama.
After earning her M.F.A. from Yale, Lathan moved to New York City where she appeared in numerous off-Broadway plays. One notable role from that year came as the sole female lead in a drama by playwright Lynn Nottage, Por’knockers, which was produced at the Vineyard Theater in 1995. The play revolves around a group of modern terrorists who destroy a building with explosives as an act of protest. In doing so, the amateurs inadvertently kill some children, and the play’s action begins when they return to an East New York rendezvous spot. “The smart, sharp perpetrators turn on one another,” wrote David A. Rosenberg in Back Stage, who gave Por’knockers an unfavorable review, but praised Lathan and her fellow cast. “Mucking through the evening are performers with enough wattage to set any building on fire,” Rosenberg asserted.
Lathan made several televison guest appearances before appearing in her first feature film, Drive, in 1996. The film was a thriller with a biotech theme and featured Kadeem Hardison. In 1997, she was chosen
At a Glance…
Born October 19, 1971, in New York, NY; daughter of Stan Lathan (a film director) and a dancer. Education: Earned degree from University of California,Berkeley, and an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama.
Career: Appeared in various off-Broadway productions, New York City, mid-1990s; television guest appearances, Family Matters, 1989; in the House, 1996; NYPD Blue, 1993; television series, Built to Last, 1997; Late Line, 1998; feature film roles, Drive, 1996; Blade, 1998; Life, 1999; The Best Man, 1999; The Wood, 1999; Love and Basketball, 2000; Catfish in Black Bean Suace, 2000.
Addresses: Office —c/o Home Box Office, Inc. (HBO), 1100 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10036.
for a new television series, Built to Last, that did not make it through the season. The following year, she won praise from television critics for her role as talent booker Brianna in another sitcom, Late Line. That show, too, was canceled.
Lathan appeared in the 1998 Wesley Snipes vampire movie, Blade, before winning critical notice for small but significant roles in two notable films of 1999. In The Best Man, she played the girlfriend of Taye Diggs, the title character, a novelist whose career is about to skyrocket with the publication of his first novel; before he leaves for his friend’s upcoming wedding festivities in another city, Lathan’s Robin warns him not to stray. He does so with a former flame played by Nia Long before Robin arrives for the ceremony. “I liked the fact that there were so many different representations of black women and black men in the movie,” she told Interview’s Rebecca Wallwork. “It wasn’t like we all had the same agenda.” An Austin Chronicle review from Marc Savlov called it a film that was “at once hopelessly romantic... and deeply moral, thoughtful, and amiably humorous,” and termed the cast “uniformly excellent.” Lathan also appeared that year in The Wood, a tale of African-American friendship set in suburban Los Angeles. On the set she met Omar Epps, her co-star of upcoming Love and Basketball.
Lathan’s appearance in Love and Basketball, which premiered in the spring of 2000, earned her unanimous critical praise. The film’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who once wrote for the NBC sitcom A Different World, cast her as Monica Wright, a talented athlete whose goal is to be the first woman to play National Basketball Association-level hoops; Lathan’s character also struggles to find happiness through a contentious romance with a fellow athlete played by Epps. The on-screen chemistry between Lathan and Epps in Love and Basketball developed into an actual off-screen romance.
Lathan worked hard to win the starring role. When Prince-Bythewood needed backers for her script, she held a reading and asked Lathan to stand in. Spike Lee was in attendance and offered to back the film project through his company, Forty Acres and a Mule.
Once Love and Basketball was green-lighted, however, Lathan was not immediately offered the lead; Prince-Bythewood auditioned several college athletes while Lathan trained for an entire year. “I needed someone who could act and also be convincing on the court,” the filmmaker told Village Voice writer Amy Taubin. “I kept putting off Sanaa’s final audition, hoping her basketball would improve.” It did, for Prince-Bythewood’s pro-ball-playing friends vetted Lathan’s tryout and assured the director that Lathan would fill the role convincingly. “I started playing with my brother and his friends,” Lathan told Jet. “Then when I got to a level where I needed a coach, they got me a coach, and I was in training for a few hours each day for four months.” Lathan was trained by Colleen Matsuhara, a WNBA coach. The actress told Jet, “After a while, I started thinking, ‘Am I going to do a movie or try out for the WNBA?’”
Like the game itself, Love and Basketball is divided into four quarters. Each tracks the relationship between Monica and Epps’s character, Quincy McCall, beginning with their childhood in the late 1970s when the two meet as next-door neighbors in a suburb of Los Angeles. Quincy’s father, Zeke McCall, played by Dennis Haysbert, was an NBA star, and Quincy is expected to follow that career path. In their backyard one-on-one, however, it becomes apparent that Monica possesses a genuine talent for the game. This surprises her rather conventional parents, and she and her homemaker mother, played by Alfre Woodard, have hard time coming to terms with one another’s standards of femininity.
Monica and Quincy compete in high school, and their combative friendship eventually turns to a tenuous romance before both enter the University of Southern California as Love and Basketball moves forward. Quincy, however, finds glory as one of the school’s top athletes, and Monica sees this in comparison to her own struggle in the less glamorous women’s division with some degree of resentment. Quincy evolves into an egotistical romeo, but Monica becomes increasingly self-disciplined; the third quarter chronicles some tough moments in their shaky relationship, which finds resolution in the fourth quarter after Monica returns from playing women’s basketball in Europe.
Lathan, charismatic and beautifully strong, hold the screen in every scene, wrote Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, who commended Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut. “The story of Quincy and Monica, their personal clashes and their athletic dreams, breaks away from other sports-themed dramas, thanks to...the exciting originality of the subject,” Schwarzbaum asserted. Other reviewers were equally positive. “Both Lathan and Epps are convincing as athletes and give charismatic performances, but Monica’s part simply goes deeper,” noted James Greenberg in his review for Los Angeles Magazine. “Ultimately her story is a feminist fable and may be a bit too good to be true. But that’s what movies are for—happy endings that don’t always happen in life.”
Lathan has completed several other interesting projects released in 2000, such Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, a multiethnic comedy about two Vietnamese children adopted into an African-American family. Lathan also appeared in Disappearing Acts, HBO’s film adaptation of the Terry McMillan novel. Lathan purposefully gained twenty pounds for the role of Zora Banks. The project was also directed by Prince-Bythewood, who had become a close friend. The success of Love and Basketball had brought Lathan to the wider attention of entertainment-industry executives, but she remained choosy about her career. “I was offered a lot of girlfriend roles, but I wanted to do something that felt good in my gut,”she told Taubin in the Village Voice. “The only power you have as an actor is to say no.”
Austin Chronicle, October 29, 1999; September 8, 2000.
Back Stage, December 8, 1995, p. 40.
Ebony, July, 2000, pp. 140-146.
Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2000, p. 76.
Essence, August, 2000, p. 63.
Interview, February, 2000, p. 144.
Jet, May 8, 2000, pp. 60-64.
Los Angeles Magazine, May, 2000, p. 50.
Village Voice, May 2, 2000, p. 136.
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