Written and directed by Michael Larnell, based on the true story of a fierce teenage girl in the late 80s and early 90s, who was the most feared battle MC in Queens, New York, with the weight of the world on her shoulders. At the age of 14, Lolita “Roxanne Shanté” Gooden was well on her way to becoming a hip-hop legend as she hustled to provide for her family while defending herself from the dangers of the streets of the Queensbridge Projects. Starring: Chanté Adams, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali, Elvis Nolasco, Shenell Edmonds, Kevin Phillips, Nelsan Ellis, Sean Ringgold, Eden-Duncan-Smith and Taliyah Whitaker.
Roxanne Shanté may be a name you’re not very familiar with, unless you’re a die-hard fan of 80s and 90s hip-hop but if that’s a reason preventing you from checking out the film, then throw that away because it won’t effect your enjoyment at all, it has a much more universal story to offer. Shanté’s story begins humble but happy, her mother is out working her fingers to the bone to provide a better life for her daughters but when that doesn’t pan out she heads into a downward spiral that leaves Shanté as the eldest to pick up the pieces. From that moment on, her talent for rap battles becomes a source of income, as well as a few light-fingered avenues, she becomes more and more known locally for being the defending champ of Queensbridge. Then a one-take, quick MC session sends her name national with her song played all over the radio, throwing her into an unexpected pool of fame, leaving a 14-year old girl to handle its consequences while still trying to care for her family, a task no child can be prepared for.
Two actresses take on the role of Shanté, Whitaker briefly portrays her at the age of nine, a prodigy of rap, taking the neighbourhood by storm and using her natural confidence, easily setting up a sympathy and likable quality to her that continues throughout. Followed up by the film’s lead Adams who presents this young woman as independent, brave, kind, motivated and incredibly talented. She’s beguiling to watch, she pulls you onto her side quickly and from that point on you’re invested in her journey, wishing not only for her to succeed but to remain grounded enough to stay by her family’s side, as she’d intended. In its 100-minutes, the film shows how much hardship that Shanté went through within only a handful of years, pain, disappointment and fear, all of which Adams carries with grace and a surprisingly understated manner, yes there are dramatics but there’s no extended scenes of her screaming at people, she keeps her cool through it all. There’s a great deal of emotion to be found in this story and her portrayal handles it all seamlessly, Adams is incredibly talented much like Shanté and it’s a shame that with this film being a few years old that it hasn’t yet translated into much bigger roles for her. She gets some unsurprisingly fantastic support from Ali who can improve any film, no matter how brief the appearance is. Long also gets a couple of really moving moments, although her overall role feels fairly minimal in the larger picture. Altogether it’s a cast that’s without a chink in its armour.
The direction is solid, it feeds well into the drama angle of the story but there are some shot choices and movements that show a much more creative side and it’s a shame that didn’t permeate the entire film but being only Larnell’s second feature, his style feels already very established. The writing is a little surprising, you may expect a more gritty or raw story but instead it focuses on emotion and family, it presents Shanté’s story as a meteoric rise yet utterly humble, centred around her dedicated to providing for her family. It briefly touches upon the reality of that world, drugs and crime making quick appearances but not making much of an impact on the story. It more tangibly tackles domestic violence but even so, it’s fairly minimal and could have been explored further. However, the story that it does present is one that’s very human and emotional, it’s a softer telling of what’s likely a more complicated story but in that way it makes it very universal and opens it up to a larger audience.
As mentioned, it does feel as though the film skirts around the darker side of events, which may not work for everyone as it could feel like a tidying up of the story which results in a telling of events that may be removed from reality but all filmmakers take some liberties with true to life stories so it can easily be forgiven. There are also a few aspects of the story that never really get resolved, with the time that it had, it does leave a little room for a deeper exploration of events; there is plenty happening but adding a few more details would have been appreciated. It’s also surprisingly light on the music side of things, there are several brief performances from Roxanne Shanté but the building of her career is more dropped in notes than leading the charge. Exploring the emotions certainly works but it could have been elevated by striking a more impactful balance of the different sides to the story and including more of her music.
Roxanne Roxanne tells a story worth telling, one of resilience, talent and dedication, instead of focusing on the dark side of the rap and hip-hop world, it grounds it out with Shanté’s personal journey. By anyone’s standard she had a hard life, getting fame and fortune is never easy, even if it’s become more accessible in today’s world and you might say she never sought it outright but her undeniable talent paved the way. Adams leads the charge confidently and is enchanting to watch, she’s a bright spark and it would be wonderful to see her in the future working on projects alongside the likes of Lovie Simone, Taylor Russell, Amandla Stenberg and Keke Palmer. It’s a fascinating story and despite the fact there was certainly more to be explored, it’s really worth watching for the sincere emotion it holds.