White, curvy, and female, Patti (Danielle McDonald) isn’t the face of hip hop stardom. McDonald’s breakout performance in, writer and director, Geremy Jasper‘s reach for the stars music video turned film is breathtakingly inspirational. Patti Cake$ is the outsiders’ plea for acceptance, even when those taste makers are deaf to the notes.
Some may see the synopsis of Patti Cake$, a white rapper’s battle for stardom, as an 8 Mile knockoff. That would be unfair to this film, as it centrally features women as complex characters with pivotal roles. Additionally, in 8 Mile there’s an inevitability to B-Rabbit (Eminem). We know that it’s only a matter of time before he proves his mettle and launches himself into stardom. Patti Cake$ doesn’t have that same inevitability because as an audience we realize how atypical her profile is, not just because she’s white, but because she’s a woman who’s deemed “unattractive.”
Patti Cake$ isn’t solely a tale of underdog status, as one of the three major films in 2017 (I, Tonya and Lady Bird being the others) to examine mother/daughter dynamics. Patti’s mother, an alcoholic washed-up former 80’s singer who got close but never made her big break, Barb (Bridget Everett) is the cynic in us all. She’s the person who’s been knocked down by life and has refused to get back up because staying down is a little bit easier. Nevertheless, every night she visits the bar her daughter works at, so she can sing karaoke (and pilfer free booze).
Barb isn’t wholly evil. Actually, calling her evil would be over-the-top. Instead, she is experienced in all the worst aspects of life. She’s used to scrapping by, and still carries the dream of stardom, even if it’s only contained in the thin whispered trembles of her vocal chords.
While Barb is the vitriolic naysayer to any of her daughter’s dreams, Nana (Cathy Moriarty), Patti’s Grandmother, is the “you can do it kid” inspiration. The audience will probably approach Patti Cake$ with the same cynicism as Barb, however, it’s her Nana that gives us the possibility of success, even if we still think the chances are shorter than the limericks Patti spins to her grandmother.
Patti’s larger circle is dominated by two individuals. The first, is Jheri (Siddarth Dhananjay), her best friend. One of the most playful moments of camera movement, occurs when Patti meets up with Jheri at his job, he’s a pharmacist. He then proceeds to give an MC announcement on the pharmacy PA to Patti, worthy of any featherweight boxing champ entering the ring. As Patti comes down the aisle kissing to her slayed and imaginary fans, the camera does a quick tracking zoom. The editor, Brad Turner, then uses cross cutting, as the same quick tracking zoom motion is used on Jheri. The camera rushes toward him standing behind the counter, hyping into the mic. Turner then pulls another cross cut to reverse the tracking shot as it slowly pulls with Patti, rather than toward her, as she struts down the aisle. We get a sense for both characters’ dreams, skills, and confidence. Most of all, we know that Jheri believes in Patti.
The second individual is Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a black punk anarchist, who’s a savvy producer. He lives and creates music in a shack near the cemetery, where Patti stumbles onto his set up. Later in the film, we’re given plenty of reasons why Basterd and Patti, and later on, Nana and Jheri team up, but I don’t feel rationales sufficient. There’s a clear hole in character motivation. Basterd is a truth bringer, an outsider like Patti, but in a much different way. For lack of a better term, he’s considered a “freak.” It doesn’t make sense that he goes along in producing music that’s clearly against his revolutionary tendencies. Sure, hip hop can be political, anarchist, and revolutionary, the best examples within the genre contain all these elements, but Patti’s music isn’t that. Maybe the later connections he makes with Patti point toward an earlier reasoning, but to me, it’s insufficient. To me, even the specter of his loneliness isn’t a reason for him to essentially betray his ideals. That’s a background quibble in a foreground story, but it’s an important aspect.
What can’t be disputed is the common thread of rejection. Basterd is turned away as a freak; Jehri is the try too hard; Patti the white trash. As Patti is shamed by mother because of her hair and musical ability or brought down by her idol O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), she reminds us that stardom isn’t singularly about talent, there’s an aesthetic aspect that makes the hill higher to climb.
The film is given gravitas by the soundtrack and McDonald’s rapping abilities. Those two elements are the most difficult to pull off. We have to believe that Patti is a great rapper who just needs a break. McDonald does all her own rapping, while Jasper, in addition to writing and directing, also writes the soundtrack (which if you haven’t listened to the OST, especially PBNJ, then find it on Spotify).
When all of these elements are thrown together, soundtrack, mother/daughter/ grandmother dynamic, the insider/outsider push-and-pull, Patti Cake$ becomes more than your typical inspiration piece. It’s a film whose characters’ ambitions are bigger than their world will allow, with souls fuller than the bass in their beats. It’s the struggle to show something not only to an unresponsive audience, but also to yourself. But mostly, Patti Cake$ is the joy that only comes when you ignore others around you telling you that you should be sad, that you should be grateful with your lot, that you deserve to live in the shadows of others. It’s the middle finger to the haters set to limericks and back beats.
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Photo Credit: OrlandoWeekly