Imagine your surprise when you issue a challenge to (rap) battle the Queensbridge Project’s champ, and she turns out to be a little girl. She has to ask her mom permission in order to curse and stand on a milk crate just to look you in the eye.
In 1982, at the age of 14, Lolita “Roxanne Shanté” Gooden is smart, fierce, and is still the most feared (if not respected) battle MC in Queens. She won’t get out of bed for less than $250, but those winnings are going to support her family. Her mother (Nia Long) is raising a family of sweet young girls all by herself, teaching them hard lessons because her own life is nothing but disappointment.
Watching Shanté (Chanté Adams) navigate the world is tough. She may spit rhymes to destroy her competition, but she’s a kid, one who engages the audience’s protective instinct. You may or may not know Roxanne Shanté, but she was well on her way to becoming a hip hop legend before she finished high school (not that she ever went). This film doesn’t feel like a typical musical biopic. Instead it’s more of a character portrait, quite intimate, and quite focused on the day to day details, which is a nice window into her little-known private life, but not much of a door to the bigger picture. Luckily, director Michael Larnell’s emphasis favours the excellence of his cast.
Roxanne Roxanne is a testimony to all the people who wanted to take advantage of a rising star. And to the dark, gritty, violent experiences lived by women of colour, in and outside of the rap game. Some of the shittiest, most shocking things are mentioned so casually that you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. And with every beating and robbery Roxanne Shanté suffers, we know what she really bleeds is her creativity, the real theft is of her talent.
When this film debuted at Sundance, Chanté Adams was its breakout star. Now it’s available on Netflix, for you to relive the golden days of hip hop (which are actually quite black) and to pay tribute to one of its founding but forgotten stars.