'Something' focuses on a volatile identity issue
By Michael O'Sullivan
By Michael O'Sullivan
Like many who grow up in show-biz families, actress Sanaa Lathan says some of her earliest memories are of the world of performers. The daughter of director-producer Stan Lathan, who got his start directing the PBS series "Say Brother," and dancer Eleanor McCoy, who appeared in the original Broadway production of "The Wiz," the star of "Something New" wasn't exactly rocked to sleep as a baby in a dressing-room steamer trunk, but she came pretty darn close.
"My mother was teaching dance classes when she was eight months pregnant," says Lathan, whose birth didn't put her mother out of commission for long. "She would put a blanket on the floor under the piano and have me there in her rehearsals and dance classes.
"I danced through my whole childhood," remembers Lathan, 34. "I actually wanted to be a dancer, probably up till junior high, and then that kind of got shifted." Realizing how hard the life of a hoofer can be and that "many people don't respect people in the entertainment industry all that much," the self-described "brainy kid" and "tomboy" started thinking about other career paths. "I said, 'You know, I don't want to go into the arts. I want to be a lawyer or a doctor. I wanted to have a respectable job.' "
That all changed, however, when a recruiter from Yale Drama School showed up at the University of California-Berkeley and convinced the English major, who by that point had begun working with a group called the Black Theatre Workshop, that R-E-S-P-E-C-T could be spelled with an MFA instead of a JD.
"I think me getting in (to Yale) in a weird way validated me in terms of wanting to be an actress. I had a real strong desire to be respected." Plus, when it all came down to it, Lathan says, "I wasn't really all that interested in law. So I'm happy I got in, because, once I was there, I realized that this is what I'm supposed to do."
Though she has had an enviable Hollywood career so far, life for this up-and-coming star hasn't changed all that much since her breakout performance in 2000's "Love & Basketball." That film, in which she played a promising athlete opposite then-real-life boyfriend Omar Epps, brought her national attention, but as far as the actress was concerned, it could just as easily have been her last job in the business. "Every movie that I do," she says, "I have yet to know what I'm doing next before the movie's over."
"It can be pretty scary. There's a lot of faith involved," she says, explaining her "strong intention to not take jobs for money."
Er, can we bring up 2004's "Alien vs. Predator," in which Lathan did battle against two sci-fi beasties in subterranean Antarctica?
"Listen," says Lathan, without missing a beat. "I thought that this was really special, in that this is a fierce-ass woman who is very" — and here she pauses, but only for a second, as if she's wondering whether she's about to go too far in her own defense — "mythical and heroic, if you want to just get deep with it. I mean, it's entertainment, but it's a first, in that this is two major franchises coming together, and it's a black woman who is the sole survivor. I, just on that level, wanted to do it."
True to her latest film's name, Lathan believes her work on "Something New" is another first. There have been interracial on-screen love stories before, she explains, but few involving a black woman with a white man. "That really is something new," she insists, but not for that reason alone. "Usually those films are the couple against the world, but this is about her dealing with her internal struggle about being with a white man — which is real."
It's a struggle she knows all too well. "I've even dealt with it in terms of dating interracially, where there's a certain guilt that happens, because of our history," she says. "Our history is so loaded, we're so intertwined, yet there's so much unconscious stuff that happens. Like you could be in a happy, wonderful dating situation with a white man, and then be terrified to go to a black event. I've literally talked girlfriends through this, like 'You have to go, girl' — you know? — 'Don't worry about what they're thinking.' And one of the things that is so ironic is that the pressure that you get is from your own people. You're 'abandoning' your own."
Although she's quick to note that "Something New" is not a message movie, she believes that it does touch on some still-volatile issues of identity.
"What I find is that, because we do live in a white world, you become — it's weird — black people become more conscious of themselves being black than a white person is of being white." That's because, for white people, she says, "there's like an ownership. 'This is my world. I see myself. From the time I'm little, I see myself reflected.' " If there is a moral to the movie, Lathan says, it's that we need to step outside of these little cages of our own making.
"It's almost as if you become your own imprisoner," Lathan says. "Do you know what I mean? You start to see yourself — and I don't think this is a good thing — as 'I am a Black Woman.' " Buy into that too deeply, she says, and you may end up looking at the world through a very narrow window.