I went into Roxanne Roxanne knowing almost nothing of Roxanne Shanté (Chanté Adams). She’s one of those people who seems like a, “you had to have been around” to be aware of her. She never had a chart topper, so you wouldn’t find her in any record books. And her two albums were only minor successes. Yet, if one had been around the Queensbridge projects during the 80’s, or the greater New York City area, you’d know. Because her legend had been spread far and wide by her 14th birthday.
Left as a footnote in music and hip hop history, when the film is at its best, it’s a mold breaking biopic for its subject. At its worst, it’s as unfocused as the teenage mind it inhabits.
In fact, the first half of the film is enough to make you stop watching. The performances are steady, as the focus is on Shanté and her mother, Peggy (Nia Long). The exposition of Shanté isn’t as strong as I’d like it. For a person we know little about, I would have hoped that we’d focus on a “character building” event. Instead, we’re almost dropped in media res in her life. In the process, we’re mostly left skulking around in the dark for the light switch. The camerawork also gives us that feel, jarringly drifting and scanning rooms and onlookers. There’s very little command of the camera’s vision in the first half hour. Instead, we see everything but are given nothing.
The only draw in the opening act is Long’s Peggy, as she finds backstabbing-man-after-backstabbing-man who disappoints. Peggy’s descent into alcoholism and cynicism, as men bring out her already petty and strong-willed character is nerve-exposed acting by Long.
Nevertheless, her performance is sometimes undone by the heavy handedness of the script. I’m all for depicting men as dogs, but I wish there was something more than the obvious message of: don’t trust them. That’s not to say that there has to be one redeeming male character, quite the opposite. But that foreboding message has to translate to something else other than the obvious. Especially as the film handles that theme more coherently later on, even if it is latent.
The film doesn’t get on track (no pun intended) until the introduction of Cross (Mahershala Ali). Ali filmed Roxanne Roxanne just after his Academy Award winning performance in Moonlight, and his entrance on screen breathes life into a drab stop-and-go film. Ali has such a talent for portraying despicable characters, in this case a pedophile, physical abuser, and drug addict, by locating the wedges of character traits hidden beneath every word of the script. You sometimes forget that his character is hitting on a 14 year old girl (no really, you do). You try to ignore what he’s obviously snorting. And much like Shanté, you don’t “embrace” his true character until it might be too late. That kind of subtle character development is not only dependent on a good script, but also an actor mining for those quirks and details. I’m not sure this film survives, or even comes close to its success without Ali. Every moment he’s off screen, you want him back.
But what I love most about Roxanne Roxanne is the nonchalantness it plays at with music. For Shanté, rap is purely a hustle. Nothing more than the prize money she wins at each successive battle. When she’s called up to an apartment to record a verse for a revenge track against U.T.F.O., she’s merely doing laundry. Most biopics would play this scene up. I mean, c’mon on. This is Shanté’s breakthrough. We’ve gotta see her pinning away at a piano, or scratching words out on a crumpled piece of paper until one day she steps up to the mic. That doesn’t happen here, and the film is the better for it.
Instead, the film—written and directed by Michael Larnell—highlights the mundane. Which is incredibly brave to do. That approach is followed throughout the film, as major acts make appearance without our noticing.
One trope I hate in a biopic, is when I see a famous figure arrive and they say something along the lines of, “You know me. I’m______.” That’s SNL impersonation writing, and I think it’s weak. If the impersonation is good enough. If the writing is solid enough. Then I don’t need someone announcing their presence for me to know. Roxanne Roxanne handles those moments expertly well.
Additionally, as the film progresses the camera work becomes steadier and more focused, along with the editing. The use of match cuts, as Shanté loses her virginity, then gives birth, then is hit by Ali’s Cross, is one of the best editing sequences I’ve seen this year.
While Roxanne Roxanne may not be perfect, it at least tries to be original. Its reliance on subtle biopic creation is refreshing. And it does away with the toxic masculinity mold of storytelling. That is, focusing on an acerbic and loutish male artist. Just as the lines Shanté spins, the film is unique at every rhyme.