Sanaa Lathan, Leading Lady

Sanaa Lathan is a wonderful actress: fluid, emotionally accessible, easy on the eye, funny, unconventional in some of her responses, with the ability to create characters. She does not repeat herself. You also don’t catch her working. If she had a “type” I would say: Leading Lady, Straight Up. She’s in the Julia Roberts pantheon. She’s not a character actress, she is born to be a romantic leading lady. She has that ineffable something that makes an audience invest in her happiness.

I’ve been a fan for some time (see my writeup of Love and Basketball here).

Something New kind of came and went, barely making a ripple, which is a shame. It’s a conventional romance, yet with the added interest of the potentially explosive (still) interracial theme, beautifully and sensitively portrayed, with details that feel like insider details. (The scene where Lathan and her new boyfriend, played by Simon Baker, get caught out in the rain and she freaks out about her hair is a particularly good example.) Something New does not re-invent the wheel (it tells the story of a workaholic serious woman, groomed by her family to be a success, who falls in love with her gardener). This is obviously an inversion of the typical rich-lady-falls-in-lust-with-the-help storyline, not to mention the fact that minorities are often used in these cliched storylines as objects of lust and agents of sexual freedom. Those with brown/black skin are seen, in the cliche, as somehow more “connected” to their sexuality and help the white woman/man loosen up. Condescending though this cliche may be, Something New acknowledges it, and also mocks it, by turning it inside out. Here, the woman is African-American, a nose-to-the-grindstone former debutante, who is surrounded by equally upwardly mobile African-Americans, and when the hot sweaty white gardener shows up, she is unprepared for her response to him.

And enlightened as we may be, interracial relationships still have the power to ruffle feathers, and Something New is special because it examines it wholly from an African-American point of view. It’s a very honest film.

Sanaa Lathan is the kind of actress your heart goes out to. You want her to be happy. This is the kind of quality all great romantic female leads have – from Audrey Hepburn to Irene Dunne to Kate Winslet. You worry about these people a little bit – they don’t seem self-sufficient, not completely anyway … and so your heart goes out to them, you hope for them, you invest. It’s a rare kind of contract between an audience and an actress, and not all romantic female leads have it. I think it’s somewhat intuitive … it’s a thing that cannot be taught. Whether or not you agree with my choices of female romantic leads is not really the point. The point is that when you are an actress in a romantic film, and you are the lead, it is crucial that the audience want what you want, that they leap into the action (in their hearts) and root for you … as though it were a sports film. Sanaa Lathan has always had that, and I will look forward to seeing her work for years to come. I’d like to see her hit the big-time, although her last couple of years have been pretty damn spectacular, what with movies and a Broadway hit.

The character in Love and Basketball, a fiery-tempered tomboy, is nothing like the uptight, vaguely sad, and yet driven career woman she creates in Something New. Not the same person. It shows her range.

Her face, even with that faint scar on her right cheek, maybe even because of the scar, is made for the movies. It’s a very beautiful face, but human, open, itself. Emotions are not strived for, or sought after by the actress, they are experienced. You don’t catch her pushing. Ever. She goes through all the peaks and valleys of emotions in Something New. The scenework between Lathan and Baker is moving, surprising, and, at times, powerful. The script is intelligent, and treats both its characters with respect. This is a movie for grownups, about grownups.

Lathan’s vulnerability is that much more touching because of the mask she feels she must put over it. She has a moment in Something New where she is given a long-sought-after important promotion, and as she struggles to keep her cool, she can no longer do so, and a smile explodes across her face, and it’s a smile that has so much in it that I found myself in tears when I first saw the movie. This is what being accessible as an actress means. That smile reached out of my television and by that point in the movie, I already wanted what she wanted, I hoped her hopes, and I felt the triumph of that moment with her.

If this were a just and fair world, Lathan would be one of America’s premiere leading ladies. But as it is, she’s a great asset to the industry, and a counterpoint to the Hollywood star-making machine, which has a tendency to churn out or push forward generic “types”.

She is not generic. She is original.

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3 Responses to Sanaa Lathan, Leading Lady

  1. Ron says:

    I absolutely agree. I’ve felt this way for years. Lathan is definitely a born romantic leading lady. Something about her eyes and facial expressions. Beautiful looking woman. She brings a vulnerability to her characters that makes you want to root for her. Great insight. Now, I hope Hollywood can get on board.

  2. sheila says:

    Ron – I am so glad to hear someone else weigh in with praise for this wonderful actress. The final scene in Something New, at the debutante ball, where she starts falling apart and her father finally knocks some sense into her – is classic movie-making, and she totally fits into that tradition. This is a character who needs to say Yes to love, and also to the difficult road ahead of her in marrying someone outside her race. But hey, she loves him, so she does what she needs to do. She is so effective in that scene (crying in the bathroom stall – so good!) – and yes, I would love to see her get more meaty parts. Woody Allen should put her in something. PT Anderson should put her in something. She is a straightup mainstream romantic lead.

    I love Love & Basketball too – she and Omar Epps are both terrific in that!

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