There is a hope that Hollywood—namely, for the naive and optimistic—will tell stories that go under-documented, exposing real truths to what history has presented inaccurately, or in severe cases, demonized. At the end of last year I, Tonya sought to recontextualize our villainous view of Olympic ice skating hopeful Tonya Harding through a camp-y Oscar winner but failed to do so, mocking white poverty and domestic abuse in its wake. Roxanne Roxanne, the Sundance critic’s pick-turned-Netflix exclusive biopic documenting the life of teen MC Roxanne Shanté (born Lolita Shanté Gooden) has no such aim, and in doing so, succeeds in educating its viewers about the under-appreciated rap pioneer. The film, set in the early 1980s and executive-produced by the rapper herself, doesn’t work to place Shanté at the forefront of hip-hop history—she’s always been present—but it does investigate the suffering it took to get there.
In the opening scene, a school-age Lolita Gooden (played by Taliyah Whitaker, and later in life by absolute force Chante Adams) is dragged by her mother, Ms. Peggy (Nia Long) to a rap battle in the heart of New York’s Queensbridge Projects—where Gooden grew up, and the majority of the film takes place. She obscures the red lipstick she’s stolen from her mother and haphazardly applied to her full lips by sucking her thumb, an anxious habituation that continues throughout her adolescence, resulting in a few too many years of braces (an iconic look also shared by black punk hero Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex). Gooden climbs atop an upside-down milk crate to stand eye-level with her much older and male competitor, who struggles to grasp what’s going on around him. In that instance, she transforms from Lolita into Shanté, opening her mouth to half-ask her mother, “Can I curse?”, who replies, “I don’t care what you do as long as you win that fifty dollars.” A smile, a breathy “yo, yo” and the film begins.
It’s the only larger-than-life moment in the entirety of Roxanne Roxanne, the only instance that attempts to mythologize her precociousness as something that, of course, would’ve produced a game-changing career. Most hip-hop biopics are comprised exclusively of these scenes, reminding us of the legacy of the artist we are watching for the duration of their two-hour epics (8 Mile, Notorious, and Straight Outta Compton come to mind, there are countless others.) Roxanne Roxanne stays true to the rapper’s story, a painful distillation of Shanté’s poverty, experiences of domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, sexual assault and career missteps. There’s no glamorization because her life wasn’t glamorous.
Much of that—a new-ish take on the familiar, rap docu-drama format—is due to writer-director Michael Larnell (Cronies, For Your Safety) who told Rolling Stone that once he spoke to Shanté about her childhood and days leading up to her hip-hop explosion, her journey, warts and all, became the focus of the project.
Understandably so: it’s a gut-wrenching, unsettling series of disappointments—Peggy saving $20,000 to move a tween Shanté and her three sisters out of the projects, only to have the money stolen by a shitty partner; an adolescence marked by boosting, deadbeat dads, and attempted rape; the threat of regular visits from social workers as Shanté drifts away from school. In adulthood, Shanté leaves her abusive partner James Cross (portrayed by Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali) in a relationship that culminates in child trafficking, with Cross demanding $10,000 to return Shanté’s son to her. She pays him, with the help of a shady lawyer played by Beastie Boys’s Adam Horowitz.
These are extramusical elements of a life that would make for a compelling story of perseverance even outside her hip-hop successes. Roxanne Roxanne places more onus on Shanté’s path to notoriety rather than glamorizing how she transformed hip-hop—in sharp contrast to the conclusive glory of other rap biopics. In this realm, male rappers appear like supreme beings, female emcees simply survive.
It’s not until halfway through the film that Roxanne Shanté’s career-making event takes place—shortly after her fourteenth birthday, in 1984, after returning home from a few weeks as a runaway. Shanté is back in the projects, walking to the laundry room when producer Marley Marl calls her over to freestyle over U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne.” In one take—10 minutes—she records what is largely considered the first female answer record, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” flipping the lustful phrasing of U.T.F.O.’s hit and transforming it into a boisterous, self-celebrating anthem.
It was “Roxanne’s Revenge” that inspired nearly 50 answer records from other aspiring and established emcees—the most famous of which originated from U.T.F.O. and featured another teen girl rapper, the Real Roxanne, inspiring what is known in hip-hop history as the Roxanne Wars. The original answer track shot Shanté to penniless superstardom (record deals far too late in life, opportunities to rap with Biz Markie, a false rivalry and subtle sisterhood with Sparky D) and all its pitfalls, including the illegal relationship with the much older Cross (Ali) that dominates the latter portion of the film. Its conclusion, both delightful and unfortunate, circles around Shanté’s discovery of fellow Queensbridge rapper Nas, more than just hinting at her influence.
If Roxanne Shanté wasn’t the first woman rapper (an honor usually attributed to Sha Rock), but she was certainly one of the first to open the world of hip-hop to women, inventing the answer record in her path. Roxanne Roxanne is a rare look into that story, the struggle and god-given talent that brought a black teen girl from the the Queensbridge Projects to the center of hip-hop history. I’ll resist sentimentalizing it further—this is, still, a film full of pain with none of the laughter of an I, Tonya—but watching Adams’s Shanté portrayal is watching a story that, before this moment, has gone under-documented. There was never any danger of erasure—Roxanne Shanté’s legacy is too far-reaching for that—but now, it has an admirable, cinematic home. That is worth celebrating.