Any real hip-hop head will recognize the name Roxanne Shante, the rap-battle prodigy who rose to fame as an adolescent and set a precedent for future female emcees like Queen Latifah and Nicki Minaj. And yet she’s mysteriously not a household name. Here’s hoping that Roxanne Roxanne, the new music biopic about the artist born Lolita Shante Gooden, will put her back on the radar. The film chronicles Roxanne’s teenage years — her brief time in the limelight — when she became one of the greatest in the game. You don’t need to know much about her to find plenty here to pique your interest; produced by Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker for Netflix, this Michael Larnell-directed picture stars Mahershala Ali and Nia Long, and promises an underdog story of a young girl (played by newcomer Chante Adams), who not only rap-battles but also battles familial demons.
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Larnell has an eye for interiors — soft yellows and blues feel hushed against the backdrop of the hectic Queensbridge in ’80s New York, and he makes a home out of the cramped space Shante shares with her mom (Long), three sisters and, temporarily, her mom’s boyfriend. But like the peeling wallpaper, Shante’s home life soon reveals the truth underneath. In this case, it involves the many strained relationships — between her mother and the men in her life, and between Shante and the harsh matriarch with a drinking problem.
Cinematographer Federico Cesca shoots indoor spaces with intimate, handheld camerawork, and when Shante is in rap-battle mode on the streets, his camera pans add dynamism to the scene. Don’t let her braces and habit of thumb-sucking fool you: She spits fire rhymes between those metal mouth bars. It’s a shame, then, that Larnell tends to call cut when a scene starts picking up steam. In an effort to be more than just about music, the film loses sight of Shante’s greatest asset. Even from the beginning, when we see a preteen Shante (Taliyah Whitaker) about to outrival a man twice her age in a battle, Larnell freeze-frames and drops the title card. Perhaps he’s operating from the assumption that people already know Shante’s music, but we never get a fully satisfying look at what makes her someone worth making a biopic about — not in amateur rap battles, on the stage or in the legendary recording session when she freestyled her four-and-a-half-minute hit “Roxanne’s Revenge” in just a single take while doing laundry. The track was a response to hip-hop group U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” about a woman thwarting a man’s advances — and then a 14-year-old stepped in and completely owned them.
Instead, we’re mostly shown her troubling home life, especially when she gets involved with the sweet-talking drug dealer Cross (Ali), who oscillates between tender and abusive, then tells her, “I hit you because I love you.” There’s a great editing moment with three haunting scenes stitched together that show Shante in the same position as she has sex with him, screaming, then gives birth to their son, screaming, then is dragged across the floor by Cross, also screaming. It’s a tragic look at how this brilliant woman can outdo all her male peers and yet still be trapped in her life because of a cruel man. The film may not end on a tragic note, but in attempting a gritty portrayal of Shante’s little-known private life, Roxanne Roxanne forgets her genius, as so many other people did back in the day.
Roxanne Roxanne premieres March 23 on Netflix.