An actress who has been noted equally for her talent and beauty, Sanaa Lathan first caught the attention of critics and audiences alike in a series of witty, thought-provoking late-’90s films about the lives of young African-Americans. Featured prominently in such ensemble pieces as The Best Man and The Wood (both 1999), Lathan won her first starring role in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s widely acclaimed Love & Basketball (2000), playing a talented basketball player who finds her professional dreams complicated by her relationship with her boyfriend and her own expectations of herself. Lathan’s work in the film, along with her performance that same year in Prince-Bythewood’s HBO movie Disappearing Acts, announced the actress as a charismatic new talent to watch.
Born on October 19, 1971, Lathan — whose first name is Swahili for “work of art” — was the second oldest of five children born to Broadway actress and dancer Eleanor McCoy and director/producer Stan Lathan. Surrounded by show business since day one, Lathan began training in dance and gymnastics at an early age. Following her parents’ divorce, she grew up shuttling between her mother’s home in New York and Los Angeles, where her father lived. During her undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, where she studied English and toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer, Lathan became involved with the Black Theater Workshop. Thanks in part to her stage experiences with the Workshop, she was encouraged to try out for the Yale School of Drama, where she was ultimately accepted.
Following her training at Yale, where she performed in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, Lathan earned acclaim both off-Broadway and on the Los Angeles stage. Encouraged by her father to make L.A. her professional base, the young actress found early TV work on episodes of such shows as Family Matters, NYPD Blue, and Moesha. During that same period, she won raves and a Best Actress nod from the Los Angeles NAACP Theatrical Award Committee for her performance in To Take Arms.
In 1998, Lathan earned a degree of big-screen recognition with her role as the mother of Wesley Snipes’ title character in Blade. She followed this the subsequent year with back-to-back turns in The Best Man and The Wood. The former was a comedic ensemble piece starring Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau Jr., and Monica Calhoun, and featured Lathan as Diggs’ girlfriend; while the latter, another ensemble piece starring Diggs, Omar Epps, and Richard T. Jones, cast her as the love interest of Epps, who also happened to be her real-life boyfriend. In 1999, Lathan played yet another girlfriend, this time Eddie Murphy’s, in Ted Demme’s comedy Life.
Lathan and Epps were reunited onscreen in Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, this time playing a couple as passionate about basketball as they are about each other. The widely lauded film served as a break-out role for Lathan, who was finally able to play a leading character instead of the girlfriend of one. Her work in Love & Basketball earned her Best Actress nominations for both the N.A.A.C.P. Image Award and the Independent Spirit Award. That same year, Lathan earned additional acclaim for her work in the multicultural comedy Catfish in Black Bean Sauce and for her second collaboration with Prince-Bythewood, Disappearing Acts. Based on a novel by Terry McMillan, the HBO movie cast Lathan as an aspiring singer/songwriter in love with a carpenter, played by her Blade co-star Wesley Snipes. For her work in the film Lathan earned an Essence Award for Best Actress, as well as the added assurance of a very busy work schedule.