“If the movie strives to be a mere entry-level primer on Roxanne Shanté, it’s still lackluster. It substitutes moments for mirrored reflections: cold, distorted, and untouchable.”
by Ken Bakely
The difficulty for Michael J. Larnell’s Roxanne Roxanne is translating its passion from idea to reality while restricting itself to the steady, measured niceties of standard biopic tropes. It has all the effervescence of a middle school research paper, lurching forward with each chapter in the life of rapper Roxanne Shanté (Chanté Adams), tracing her rapid rise as a teenage girl in 1980s Queens, and the struggles that followed. To trace the moment that it roars to life is to escape to the end: it starts at an archival clip of the real Shanté, before smashing to a song over the end credits. While Adams is revelatory – by turns heartbreaking and stirring, imposing and minimized – in the titular role, Larnell’s filmmaking is only fractionally as inspired, and rarely rises to the heights of a dynamic lead performance.
Roxanne Shanté’s legacy is nothing if not enigmatic. She achieved tremendous success in her adolescence before leaving the hip hop scene less than a decade later, leaving a tremendous impact for female rappers in the following decades. Larnell is clearly captivated with telling this story, wanting to know where someone with her life comes from, and how it all came together at the right time. Yet Roxanne Roxanne doesn’t seek to fill in the blanks as much as haphazardly acknowledge that there are events which contribute to every plus and minus in its subject’s personal and professional life. It operates like an account from somebody who wasn’t there and can’t remember the details of a secondhand synopsis. The film starts by establishing Shanté living in tight quarters with her sisters and long-suffering mother (Nia Long), revving up the cramped interior spaces of a hazy domestic drama. These vivid, intimate confrontations and developmental moments are particularly strong, but it’s not indicative of any consistent clarity.
Indeed, when Roxanne records her first hit at age 14, and inspires dozens of diss tracks overnight in response to her outspoken messaging, it’s presented in past-tense discussion. How does a previously unknown teenager cause such a dramatic stir across the industry? The movie doesn’t know, because it shifts focus again to Cross (Mahershala Ali), an outwardly charismatic drug dealer with whom Roxanne enters a relationship that quickly becomes abusive. In one of the movie’s most effective sequences, Larnell runs a rapid, three-part matching shot, showing Roxanne, lying down and moaning in discomfort. It begins in a bedroom, when she first has sex with Cross; then in a hospital room, when she’s in labor delivering their child; and then in their home, when he drags her across the floor while screaming at her. It’s a moment of startling power, and a unified vision which goes unreplicated throughout the rest of the runtime. While Roxanne Roxanne recognizes how Shanté was the victim of countless manipulative men, this critical juncture is undersold as a storytelling function. Even an encapsulation of Cross’ chilling behavior – in the line “I hit you because I love you” – comes off as more of a shorthand indicator of the character’s sadistic nature rather than a reference to the cyclical torrents of mistreatment that Shanté is depicted as being subject to her entire life.
Roxanne Roxanne winds up being about everything except its main character. She’s written as a viewer’s window for an early ‘80s period piece; a blank slate with conveniently timed bursts of energy, only given shape by Adams’ electric interpretation. As a filmmaker, Larnell creeps around the edges, cutting away from scenes before they reach their climax, delivering subsequent information through newspaper clippings or characters’ verbal summaries. If the movie strives to be a mere entry-level primer on Roxanne Shanté, it’s still lackluster. It substitutes moments for mirrored reflections: cold, distorted, and untouchable. There’s nothing to engage with because everything is presented as stone-encased history. Larnell clearly wants us to think of Shanté as a figure of later dividends, who caused a flashpoint stir that forever altered rap history, but not for her, and not then. The irony is that the film treats her with the same momentary illusion that the larger pop cultural discussion has.