Roxanne, Roxanne movie review: More a gritty coming-of-age tale than old-school hip-hop story
The story arc of Roxanne Shanté's life does indeed feel tailor-made for a conventional biopic
Queensbridge housing projects, New York City. 1984.
Lolita Shanté Gooden is going about her business when producer Marley Marl asks her to record a freestyle over the beats from UTFO's widely acclaimed track 'Roxanne Roxanne', a B-side of their lesser-known single 'Hangin' Out'. She agrees and records 'Roxanne Speaks Out' in one take. Although she was already a prodigy of sorts when it came to rap battles, the track would bring her immense fame overnight and kick off one of the most legendary hip-hop rivalries, the Roxanne Wars, resulting in an incredible number of response records, perhaps the most in history.
She was 14 years old at the time.
Her track would later be known as 'Roxanne’s Revenge' and go on to sell over 2,50,000 copies just in the New York area. Gooden herself would change her name to Roxanne Shanté.
Now, almost two-and-a-half decades after Shanté effectively retired from the recording industry and her contributions mostly overlooked or forgotten in the pages of hip-hop history, film director Michael Larnell has bought the genre pioneer’s story back to the limelight with Roxanne Roxanne, a feature based on the life of the artist.
The story arc of Shanté's life does indeed feel tailor-made for a conventional biopic but it's the decisions that Larnell takes with his narrative — what he chooses to put under the microscope and what he casually discards — that makes, or occasionally, breaks the movie.
The film makes a point of sincerely focusing on Shanté’s life — a troublesome upbringing, an absent father, an alcoholic mother, three younger sisters to take care of, her early fame, the questionable motives of people around her, the spectrum of men in her life, the ups, the downs — and not just the fateful years of the 1980s when she suddenly found herself on all over the radio.
Set in and around Queensbridge — home to some of the most influential hip hop/rap music and artists — the film paints a portrait of Shanté as a person, rather than just a rapper, and in the backdrop is a community of everyday people with everyday struggles, aspirations, heartbreaks and fleeting pleasures, all defining her circumstances and fortunes. While in many ways, a single diss track represented who she was for most of the outside world, in Larnell’s retelling though, he treats the feat as just another day in the eventful early years of the artist.
The film acts as a slight parting in the curtain, giving one a peek into the scenes of an already fading memory of a time and place, with a determined woman leading the charge.
A young(er) Shanté is battle rapping in the projects already when she is nine and the promise of a better future hangs heavy in the air at home. But things fall apart when the father walks out, and her shattered mother finds solace in the bottle leaving the young teenager to not just fend for herself, but also her three younger sisters. Rap promises money, among other things, but the dues are never paid. In a male dominanted scene, the name-calling, hard-battling star is reduced to playing a tease and a money minting machine. Abuse comes disguised as love, humiliations as fame. But Shanté keeps getting back on her feet, sometimes naively, sometimes with a sting.
Still a teenager.
One of the questions that the movie promised to answer before its release was why the rap sensation decide to call it a day so early in her life. The answer, alas, is too obvious once you hear her story, and leaves you with a feeling that it might be a more widely shared one.
In a sense, the film is more of a gritty coming-of-age tale at its heart, than an old-school hip-hop story. On the one hand, this approach allows it to break away from the more formulaic music biopics and makes the real-life-star characters more approachable; but on the other, the film often feels disjointed as it aims to cram in as much as possible and is a bit disappointing if you want the 'Roxanne’s Revenge' story, rather than Roxanne Shanté’s.
Also, while cinematographer Federico Cesca and production designer Javiera Varas do a good job of bringing the New York City projects of the 1980s back to life, Larnell’s inexperience with direction comes to the fore a few times during the course of the 100 minutes, especially when it's time to establish certain motives of the characters, or continuity.
Among the lead roles, Chanté Adams, who plays Shanté (the similarity in names has been duly noted), does a convincing job of portraying the teenager at the center of it all, while Mahershala Ali makes the most of his crudely written character — an older, abusive drug dealer with whom Shanté gets into a relationship. But it’s Nia Long in the role of Peggy Gooden (Shanté’s mother) who steals the show with her measured performance.
The film, executive produced by Shanté herself as well as industry heavyweights Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker, also resonates in the #MeToo era with its vivid portrayal of a young black woman pitted against the odds created mostly by manipulative or powerful men. In a recent interview, the now 48-year-old talked about her support for the movement and how she wished it had happened much earlier.
Shanté, never one to look back and muse on how things might have turned out, is doing her part. She now mentors many a new artist, in addition to educating many more children. And as many in hip-hop would attest, the doors she had opened decades ago for young female rappers — she is still holding them open.
There are a few memorable moments in the movie, but one that perhaps encapsulates the film’s bittersweet vision the best is this: Shanté records her career, even life-defining track, 'Roxanne’s Revenge', in between a laundry run.
Roxanne Roxanne is out on Netflix.
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