Gifted with the lyrical ability to rap faster than most people sneeze, Queensbridge’s Shante (Chante Adams, “Monsters and Men”) seems destined for greatness. Just a child, she battles adults on any track, any beat — and she wins. A challenge to a clapback to UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” leads to a meteoric rise to the public eye. Within weeks, Shante is touring, recording and being mobbed by adoring fans. Ultimately, the furious rhythm of life as a superstar proves to be the only beat she can’t handle, and one by one her supporters abandon her. Broken by an abusive husband, thieving tour director and fake friends, Shante comes back to the house fearsome emcee Roxanne stormed out of, a girl back under Momma’s roof once more. It’s classic corruption-of-fame narrative.
However, what sets “Roxanne Roxanne” apart from other hip-hop biopics is a laser focus on the story of Shante’s life, not just her music career. Not to say the rap scenes aren’t good — these are probably some of the best battles since “Straight Outta Compton.” But in the hands of other directors, this film would be turned into a soporific slush of battle clips, much the way athlete stories often turn into cheap highlight reels better suited to YouTube. Instead, “Roxanne Roxanne” sets the tone by opening with a baby-faced Shante being scolded by her mother. “You best be back by 9:00,” she warns.
Momma’s (Nia Long, “Friday”) tough love turns sour when Shante’s father runs off with the entire family’s savings. This theme of exploitation develops beautifully over the course of the film. The biggest threat to young Black people, director Michael Larnell asserts, is young Black people. Shante is forced to steal, nearly gets raped by a friend, has her tour money stolen by a manager and wants to find love but gets stuck in an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend Cross (Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”) plays a parallel to Momma’s husband, showering Shante with lavish gifts and lies. It’s a story told and repeated since time immemorial, making it clear that in the projects, talent and love aren’t the keys to getting out but another thing to be monetized.
Perhaps most heartening is the community of troubled people we meet. The sweet-talking men that seem to care for Shante play a clever foil to Momma, who unceremoniously throws her onto the street for “trying to act like a hoe.” Momma isn’t perfect. She drinks a lot, has lost hope and regularly curses Shante out. But in her desperate hour of need, Momma is there and the others leave with her fame and money. It’s not exactly a diatribe against men, even though the division largely falls that way, but a portrait of life in the slums. People climb over each other, and the cost of someone’s ticket out often comes at the expense of another person’s dream.
Besides the excellent acting debut from Adams, balancing technical rap skill and onstage bravado with a private, endearing vulnerability, the biggest triumph of the film is the brutal humanity of its subjects. Momma doesn’t just give tough love, she also is tough to love. But she was made that way by disappointment, an arc that Shante also must travel, albeit with some glamour and fame thrown in. Poverty, Larnell notes, isn’t daily misery but a permanent postponement of something better. Still, there is hope: Shante proved, however briefly, that it was possible for a little girl in the slums to be a star in a male-dominated field, paving the way for people like Cardi B and Queen Latifah. A cute scene at the end sees her mentor a kid named Nasir, who lands on the rap name Nas. But for every one-in-a-million that made it, there are thousands with the talent that didn’t. “Roxanne Roxanne” is one of those, the story of a girl chasing a dream both made possible and later killed by the city and its people.