A musical biopic with plenty of swagger and style that will get hip hop fans of a certain age nostalgically swooning over vintage track suits and old-school dance moves, Roxanne Roxanne tells the story of rapper Roxanne Shante, a kid from the Queens projects best known for her hit record “Roxanne’s Revenge” from 1984. For his sophomore feature, with support from producers Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams among others, writer-director Michael Larnell (Cronies) has assembled an impressive cast featuring Nia Long (Lemon), Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and, just to add an extra scrap of East Coast-authenticity, Adam Horowitz, aka Ad-Roc from the Beastie Boys in a cameo as a sleazy lawyer.
But the performer who really owns the film is Chante Adams. A discovery making her screen debut, chosen over hundreds of rivals, Adams displays terrific range and an incandescent screen presence as she effortlessly incarnates Shante over a 10-year period, from puberty to young motherhood.
Given that Roxanne Shante’s life story is not that well known, prospective distributors may have to work a little harder than usual to market this gritty tale of poor parenting, spousal abuse and rap battles, but the rewards may be worth it. And while some of those thematic elements may seem overexposed in films about life in the ghetto and on the road to musical fame, fortune and bankruptcy, the emphasis here on domesticity and a woman’s experience makes for a somewhat refreshing change.
Originally born Lolita Shante Gooden, the protagonist is first met when she’s still just a little kid (played by Taliyah Whitaker), strutting through the streets of the Queensbridge housing project with her sister Ranita (Olivia P. Bucknor as a child, and then later played by Shenell Edmonds) on her way to a rap battle against a full-grown male challenger. He’s not impressed to be competing with a little girl, but Shante doesn’t seem afraid of anything. One of the film’s smartest moves is the way it cuts away just before the battle begins, building up a little suspense about just how good Roxanne’s rhymes are, so when she finally raps (by now played by Adams) maybe 15 or more minutes into the movie, it raises the roof.
Larnell’s screenplay, written after extensive interviews with the real-life Shante, suggests that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that she would go into music. Having shown an aptitude for shoplifting, Shante might easily have slipped into a life of crime. Tough love is meted out by her single mother Peggy (Long), who locks the house door at 9 p.m. regardless of whether everyone’s home, and Shante learns to fend for herself. Later, when a lover (Curtiss Cook) lets Peggy down cruelly and steals her life savings, she instructs her four daughters to learn from her example and never to trust a man. Shante doesn’t embrace this harsh life lesson, but as Peggy sinks into alcoholism, Shante becomes even more of a mother figure to her three younger siblings.
While walking to the laundry room one day to wash her mother’s clothes, the now 14-year-old Shante is hailed from an upstairs window by Marley (Kevin Phillips), an aspiring producer in the neighborhood. He asks her to come up and lay down a track, a rap in the character of Roxanne, the love object in a song called “Roxanne, Roxanne” by beat combo U.T.F.O. The idea is that with this rap, Roxanne responds to accusations in the original song that she’s cold and aloof.
The resulting track, a sassy rap-rant-riposte that Shante records in just one take so she can get back to the laundry, is titled “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Before long, it’s getting airplay on the radio and Marley and his associates are asking Shante, now known as Roxanne Shante, to come on tour with them. Although the performance sequences are exciting, the energy dips a little in this mid-section as a flurry of new characters are introduced, Roxanne gets involved in a literal war of words with a rival rapper who styles herself the “Real Roxanne” and various managers and venue owners prove — surprise, surprise! — completely untrustworthy. More importantly, her newfound fame and very modest fortune also attract the attention of local drug dealer and all-round superfly guy Cross (Ali), who courts Shante with fur coats and oily promises of undying love.
One spectacular series of shots nimbly spliced together makes an indelible impression, condensing in maybe 30 seconds of screen time the whole tragic arc of Cross and Shante’s relationship. First the camera is positioned just behind Shante’s head while she’s lying down, watching as she cries out when Cross takes her virginity. Then, suddenly a new shot, set up with Shante in exactly the same position, shows her howling with pain as she gives birth to a baby boy. The final shot, once more again set up in the same position, captures her piercing screams as Cross drags her by the hair around their New Jersey apartment.
It’s bravura filmmaking like this that helps to make this work standout as something more than just another biopic of a relatively obscure figure from music history. As well as looking uncannily like the real, real Roxanne Shante, Adams raps right on the beat, can bust all the right moves and looks adorable even with massive braces on her teeth. Moreover, she’s like some astronomical singularity, pulling every eye and gaze her way just by standing still. A star is born.
Production companies: A Significant Productions production with I Am Other Entertainment in association with MNM Creative
Cast: Chante Adams, Mahershala Ali, Nia Long, Elvis Nolasco, Kevin Phillips, Shenell Edmonds, Adam Horovitz
Director/screenwriter: Michael Larnell
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Mimi Valdes, Forest Whitaker, Pharrell Williams
Executive producers: Michael Y. Chow, Michael Shen, Roxanne Shanté
Co-producers: Erica Brady, Ralph McDaniels
Director of photography: Federico Cesca
Production designer: Javiera Varas
Costume designer: Kama K. Royz
Editor: Claudia Castello
Music supervisor: Ben Sokoler
Casting: Jessica Daniels
Sales: WME Entertainment
No rating, 98 minutes