Lathan, whose first name is swahili for Work of Art, is the second of five children born in New York City to Eleanor McCoy, a Broadway actress and dancer, and Stan Lathan, a director and producer. Surrounded by show business since birth, 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 City and Los Angeles, California, where her father lived.
During her undergraduate education at the University of California, Berkeley, from which she earned a B.A. in English in 1992 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 Los Angeles her professional base, the young actress found early television roles on episodes of such shows as In the House, 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 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 Best Man was a comedic ensemble film, starring Taye Diggs, Nia Long and Morris Chestnut. The Wood, another ensemble film starring Diggs and Omar Epps, cast her as the love interest of Epps, who at the time was also her real-life boyfriend.
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 film served as a break-out role for Lathan, who played a leading character instead of the girlfriend of one. Her work in Love & Basketball earned her "Best Actress" nominations for both the NAACP 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. That year, she was named by Ebony magazine as one of its 55 Most Beautiful People and was honoured by Essence magazine and Black Entertainment Television.
Lathan subsequently starred in several major Hollywood films, including Alien Vs. Predator which was Lathan's biggest role to date. Lathan was the female lead in a Science Fiction movie which is rare for a black actress. In addition, Alien Vs. Predator was a major success grossing over $171 million dollars worldwide. Out of Time was also an important role for Lathan as she played the bad girl.
In 2006, Lathan co-starred with Simon Baker in Something New, a romantic comedy about an interracial relationship. Lathan appeared in a recurring role as Michelle Landau in another interracial relationship as the much younger wife of a Texas businessman (Larry Hagman) during the fourth season of the television series, Nip/Tuck.