What it's about: Roxanne Shante is a hip-hop legend who rose to prominence during the 1980s boom around the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York. As a young girl she was a master of the rap battle, taking on all-comers with enough cash to challenge for her crown. While skipping school, she scrapes together money by babysitting and selling stolen clothes. After getting a song on the radio, though, things blow up for Shante, leading to rowdy crowds and lots of attention.
It might go without saying, but Roxanne Roxanne is the best Netflix film release so far this year -- when the main competition is The Cloverfield Paradox and Mute, the mantle is well within reach.
This is exactly the kind of movie that can really benefit from the platform and the kind of movie that Netflix should be seeking out. It plays into the 80s nostalgia that Netflix has invested in heavily, but it is a smaller, more niche story that is more easily found on streaming than in the very limited theatrical release it received.
The film's vibrant hip-hop world is obviously the hook, but I do appreciate how Roxanne Roxanne is a well-rounded dramatic story first. In fact, early on, the film deliberately evades Shante's skills by cutting away or having her refuse to rap. It gives just enough with one extended battle to establish her force and then focus on the character's life.
This allows the second half of the film to focus on Shante's journey into the music industry and how she's changed by it. The film can't avoid all the "Behind the Music" drama plotlines but it is kept balanced by Shante's relationships with her mother and an older man [Mahershala Ali]. Roxanne Roxanne comes full circle of sorts for the conclusion, with Shante no longer in the music industry and now again having to fend for herself as life has beaten her down.
By the end of Roxanne Roxanne, I was left with the impression that I wish this was a series instead of a movie. It mostly works as a biopic but so much ground is covered in about 90 minutes. Shante's status changes so much from beginning to middle to end that more of a buildup and breakdown would be welcome. And it would give the opportunity to explore so much more of the surrounding hip-hop world.
Chanté Adams as Shante keeps the film together with a fantastic performance. First and foremost, she is completely believable with the music, both on stage and facing off in the battles. She has an intensity that works for the music and for the dramatic turmoil and still a softness that makes her a believable 16-year-old on screen. Without her strong performance, Roxanne Roxanne's biopic and nostalgia trappings would have no doubt been more abrasive. The newcomer also has a role in the Sundance highlight Monsters and Men, so hopefully this early success leads to a great career.
The highlight of the film's music is without a doubt an onstage performance after a fight with her DJ, Shante performs exclusively with the new beatboxer in her crew, Biz Markie. It is a pretty cool realization but also a little sad that he became the household name that Roxanne Shante never did.
There is another fun little character revelation at the end of the film, but I'll leave that one unspoiled.