Helmer mixes melting-pot roots, singular style

Director Sanaa Hamri is accustomed to being a one-woman intersection — of Arab and American roots; of an African high school education and a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College; of female empowerment and Hollywood patriarchy. So why shouldn’t she be making an art film out of a studio romantic comedy?

Her upcoming “Just Wright” stars Queen Latifah, Paula Patton (“Precious”) and Common (“American Gangster”) as sides of a romantic triangle. “A romantic comedy has a certain formula,” Hamri says. “Yeah, we know the couple always winds up together — unless it’s a French film. But I always say, ‘How do I go about making the journey more complex than it might be?’ That’s the question I ask every time I do a scene; that’s what I’m interested in.”

“Just Wright” is the rare contemporary romantic comedy with an artistic sense of textures and shadows playing off thoughtful character development. One would guess that’s a rare combination because of the expense. Hamri says it isn’t.

“It’s not more expensive,” she says. “It’s really all about preparation and thought. I come from a visual background — my father was an artist. I use the right people, and those who work with me already know that visuals will be a huge factor and that it all has to be coherent in the frame.”

The May 14 Fox Searchlight release stars Latifah as a physical therapist with a fixer-upper house in the ‘burbs and an inexplicable devotion to the New Jersey Nets. Common plays an NBA star with outside shot, inside smarts and a palatial pad on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When the basketball star gets injured, and his foxy godniece, played by Patton, dumps him, Latifah steps in to heel his knee, and his heart (sob).

Hamri, a onetime musicvideo wunderkind-turned-studio filmmaker (“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2″) seems an unlikely subscriber to the golddigger ethos repped by Patton’s character. But Hamri finds it fascinating.

“Queen Latifah’s character is not singlemindedly in pursuit of men — she’s working on her career,” Hamri says. But Patton’s character is another story. “For some women, there’s this obsessive quality about getting the guy, especially if they don’t have anything going for themselves.

“I went to a very feminist school,” Hamri adds. “which may be why I find it so interesting.”

Born in Tangier, where she grew up speaking English, Moroccan dialect, French and Spanish, Hamri entered Sarah Lawrence, in Bronxville, N.Y, at the age of 17, majoring in theater arts and psychology. After spending her junior year in Paris, she moved to Manhattan. Though she had no experience making films, she taught herself how to use an Avid and began making videos and knocking on doors.

Her break came when video mogul Malik Sayeed saw her work, and began showing it around. When Mariah Carey saw it, she immediately hired Hamri to direct her “Crybaby” video. Things started clicking: Hamri worked with Jadakiss, Prince, Sting and Common among others, made her first feature, “Something New,” which was followed by “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.”

“I loved the first movie,” she says of “Pants.” “The producers and the studio really loved my first film, ‘Something New,’ and wanted a director for the second (“Pants”).”

She met with Alcon, Warners and the producers and pitched her take on the direction she saw for the franchise.

“I developed ‘Traveling Pants 2′ from the fourth book it’s based on, as well as an outline the producers had.”

That’s how she met producer Debra Martin Chase, who also produced “Just Wright.”

“This is my second movie with Sanaa, and thus I knew she would be perfect for ‘Just Wright.’ She has a sophisticated perspective on life and people, is a wonderful storyteller and an instinctive visual artist,” Chase says.

Hamri, in her mid-30s, jumps between helming features, TV episodes for shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” as well as commercials and musicvideos. And someday, she’d like to return to Morocco and make a film about the people there.

As one of the few women of color working in studio movies and African-American-oriented pictures, Hamri might feel like she’s under a microscope. She doesn’t.

“I don’t feel this huge weight on me by any means,” she says. “It’s a creative palette. I’m an international person, and the movies I want to be part of are those that people from all walks of life can enjoy, or get something out of.”

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