It must be said, before anything else, that the importance of a story like Roxanne Roxanne making it to the big (streaming) screen cannot be understated. Roxanne Shanté, born Lolita Shanté Gooden, started rapping when she was just a child. She was a prodigy, going on to become the best battle rapper in Queens, New York. She would go on to suffer through and survive an abusive relationship with a statutory rapist who she fell in love with, just as her talent was beginning to catch the attention of record producers. Clashes with her mother and her absentee father made her life in the Queensbridge housing projects all the more complicated. Her story—and stories like hers—deserve to be told, and that’s why this piece is one of those critiques that comes, first, from a place of love. I love that Roxanne Roxanne exists. I want everyone to see it (and to become familiar with new talent Chanté Adams as Shanté). But I also know that this could have been a much better work of art.
There is plenty to enjoy from writer/director Michael Larnell’s presentation of Roxanne Shanté’s story. The ’80s New York vibe is all the way there, and I can’t be mad at some great moments we get to witness: Roxanne Shanté vs. Sparky D; a shy, young boy in Shanté’s projects, named Nasir, who wants to be a rapper; and an unknown Biz Markie beat boxing for Roxanne when her DJ (Marley Marl) bails on her. But as a whole, the film is missing an emotional pulse that was likely sacrificed in an attempt to emphasize the difficulties that Shanté endured as a young girl. Shanté’s personal and artistic experiences are ultimately hijacked by the men in and around her life, whose failures ultimately dominate her story.
This should have been a female-centric narrative, weaving personal experiences with the art of rhymes and battle rapping. Instead, Larnell spends much of the time exploring the impact of men in Shanté’s life (men who steal, rape, take and beat), while, unfortunately, eclipsing her incredible accomplishments.
The film opens with the very young rapper (played by Taliyah Whitaker), not even a teenager and already a legend in her Queensbridge projects for battle rapping. But instead of showing us how the protagonist had made such a name for herself, the director cuts out what could have been an amazing scene: baby Shanté destroying a much older opponent who insists he won’t battle a little girl. In fact, there isn’t a battle rap in the film until we’re about an hour in and we see Sparky D and Shanté in the studio—which isn’t quite the same as a battle rap in the streets. The film consumes valuable screen time with Shanté’s mother’s boyfriend—the asshole who steals the $20,000 her mother (Ms. Peggy, played by Nia Long) was saving for the down payment on a home. It’s true that he takes the family’s last chance to get out of the projects, which means he did, perhaps, merit some space in her biopic. But the fact that he, along with several other men, leaves more of a mark on the film than Shanté’s artistry is unacceptable.
It’s true that we live in a world where, unfortunately, the stories of amazing women often cannot be told separate from their abusers. But Roxanne Roxanne fails to express this complex truth—and, yes, such an expression is incredibly difficult. It’s one of the reasons What’s Love Got to Do With It is such a powerful movie—you somehow understand why Anna Mae falls in love with Ike Turner, how he gives her everything she craves as a young woman looking to feel love and to feel grown, and why it’s so difficult to leave that behind for an uncertain future without him. A similar storyline is at work in the “love” story between Shanté and Cross, but it’s never fully explored.
As much screen time as the great Mahershala Ali is given as Shante’s abusive and over-age lover Cross, their relationship feels underdeveloped. He puts her in a mink coat and tells her he’ll give her the family she needs—and that’s it. In one of the most perplexingly edited scenes I’ve ever watched, Shanté loses her virginity, gives birth to her first child and gets dragged by her hair across the floor, screaming from one moment to the next. It’s a 10-second cut that robs us of Shanté’s most personal and arguably defining moments in life: finally losing her virginity, finally becoming a mother and starting her own family. How troubling and fascinating it might have been, to have seen Shanté having to suffer the realization that, because of the abuse, she had recreated another dysfunctional family when all she wanted was to have something different from the home she’d run away from. Robbing us of the complexity and the tension of such moments is not unlike robbing us of watching her battle raps, or witnessing her development as an artist.
There’s a scene in the film that likely encompasses what the storytellers were attempting with Roxanne Roxanne. Shanté has recently moved back in with her mother and is rushing to finish the laundry. On her way to the laundry room, DJ Marley Marl stops her and asks her to record over a beat he’s been working on. She declines at first—housework is calling and she doesn’t need any more drama with her mother. Eventually she relents and runs up to his apartment to record, in one take, the record that launched her career, “Roxanne’s Revenge.” She only has time for one take because the laundry has to get done: Roxanne Roxanne is absolutely concerned with how Shanté’s personal life often has dominated or informed her work as a rapper. I love that about the movie—that concern for her life as a daughter, older sister and young girl experiencing a relationship for the first time. In between all of this “life happening,” Shanté is battle rapping (again, inexplicably, off screen) for nice chunks of cash, and eventually going on tour. The film wants to continuously highlight the strangeness that was briefly captured when she recorded her verse with a load of laundry in the washer—the almost comical tragedy in having immense talent that cannot be fully explored when you’re a young woman with other responsibilities. But I wonder if the film’s other obsession—the failures of abusive partners and disappointing male friends (“friends” who attempt rape, others who call you a hoe when you accept gifts from fans, etc.) and tour managers got in the way of what it could have been.
And perhaps worse than the men who disappoint and discourage are the women in the story who are never given the character development they deserve. As Ms. Peggy, Nia Long plays the tough, nagging, mostly disapproving mother in every scene, with practically the same dialogue at every turn. Roxanne Roxanne could have offered up a fascinating portrait of a mother/daughter relationship that took too many blows to be healed, but the filmmaker never delves below the surface in depicting their antagonistic dealings. Similarly, there are three younger sisters and a best friend, Ranita (Shenell Edmonds), who all offer glimpses at a closeness among young women—the kind of closeness that may have very well carried the real Shanté through difficult times.
Edmond’s Ranita is especially underused. We see her playing the perfect hype man in early scenes, but the two rarely seem to share an intimate moment. The closest we actually get to one comes after the friendship has partially dissolved; Shanté is going on tour and saying goodbye to her friend, who can’t join her. But there’s also already a distance between them, which is never dramatized or properly explained. Their friendship could have functioned as a powerful exploration of the loss that can happen between friends when lives start to change and paths diverge, but nothing that has transpired provides the viewer with the emotional shift we needed. She reappears at the end of the movie, playing a key role in Shanté facing her abuser to get her son back, but it’s yet another moment that feels out of place—particularly in an odd ending that focuses on Shanté’s desperation to get her son back from Cross, a story that has little to no impact since we’ve never even seen Shanté as a mother. (There are literally no scenes with the son until they are “reunited” in the film’s last few minutes.)
Larnell and the others involved in the production of Roxanne Roxanne might have wanted to focus more on the personal trials and tribulations of one of our hip-hop pioneers, and purposely marginalized her impact on the rap scene of that time. I wouldn’t agree with such a choice—particularly for her first biopic—but such a decision certainly could have resulted in a fascinating coming-of-age drama. The stories yearning to be told—of motherhood, of struggle, and sisterhood, and friendship and first (highly problematic) love for a girl who doesn’t quite know what good love looks like—are all there on the surface of Larnell’s film. We are desperately in need of more movies concerned with women in rap, women from the projects, women in relationships with men like Cross—and women who refuse to be defined by any one of these things—but we also desperately need the writers and directors who take on the stories of such women to push beyond the surface and give us the excellence we deserve.
Shannon M. Houston is a writer on Hulu’s The Looming Tower, Amazon’s Homecoming and HBO’s Lovecraft Country. She is the former TV Editor of Paste, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.