“Roxanne Roxanne” is part biopic, part rap history

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For audiences who grew up in the 1980s with access to urban music, performers like Roxanne Shante, UTFO, Biz Markey and Egyptian Lover were household names. What was less known was that the teenage girl rapper, Roxanne Shante, was not some well-paid performer, despite the ubiquity of her records. Netflix’s film, “Roxanne Roxanne,” tells the gritty life that the teen was forced to lead growing up in a tough New York City neighborhood in Queens. The film depicts Shante’s life in unflinching detail.

About “Roxanne Roxanne”

The famous name star of the movie is Nia Long. She and the actress who portrays Shante bear a striking resemblance to each other, and when they are in conflict, which is often as Long’s character is an alcoholic and she is a mother to Shante and her three younger sisters.

Shante’s story is unfortunately familiar. The main difference between Roxanne and the countless other protagonists in coming-of-age films is that she is tough. She begins to build her life by battling boys and young men in neighborhood rap contests. The rap contests help Shante to earn money for her struggling household. Unfortunately, at first, the rap money is not enough. Shante’s other “job” is “boosting” or shoplifting for others. She could expect to get paid for getting the requested items. The numerous close calls as store security personnel find her out create dynamics in the movie that literally make audiences’ palms sweat – – will she or won’t she get caught? As it turns out, shoplifting is the least of her concerns. Roxanne Shante’s mother continues to drink, suffer mood swings and as a result remains difficult to deal with. Until she stops drinking. But that comes later, and her cold, abusive attitude toward her daughter who is only trying to help is off-putting.

Like in so many gritty coming-of-age stories, the main character becomes a runaway. But Roxanne Shante doesn’t just stay on the streets; she shares an apartment with a young man who views her as a family member. The rapper-in-training pays her share of rent through her shoplifting hijinks and the odd rap battle. But audiences cheer for this because at least she is away from her problematic mother. However, things can never stay tranquil for Roxanne Shante.

Every time it seems as if she has a way out of troubled circumstances, Roxanne Shante makes another choice that is indicative of a girl too young to be making such decisions. The men in her life, including her baby’s father, are too old, too violent and too unpredictable. The one constant in the movie had been Roxanne’s hairstyle – – a simple ponytail that the girl had worn ever since her hair grew out of the mushroom style she had sported when she first ever battled boys in the neighborhood. The ponytail grew and grew as if it were the only thing healthy in Roxanne’s life. And then, after a particularly brutal incident of domestic violence, not the first, she cuts the ponytail and the symbolism is clear.

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is when Roxanne battles (on a record, and therefore in a recording studio) one of many girl challengers. The two go on tour with a cadre of male deejays and managers, and randomly, the money Roxanne was to be paid is stolen. Her on-wax nemesis, Sparky D, encourages her to forget the boys and in a moment of “girl power” the two split the money Sparky was paid. The other rapper gives Roxanne a pep talk, and the moment is unexpected because they are supposed to be almost bitter rivals.

The movie’s actual end shows vintage interviews with the actual “real Roxanne.” It is interesting to see how the rapper’s real attitude and speech patterns were portrayed in the movie. Roxanne Shante, through unbelievable hardship and spirit, emerges as the kind of girl who lives and breathes authenticity.

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