Published by the American Bar Association
The Dealmaker's Ten Commandments provides a practical, no-nonsense
In 1984, Lolita Shante Gooden, a 14-year-old from Queens, was on her way to do laundry when she became a hip-hop star.
A producer stopped her and asked if she would rap over some beats from “Roxanne Roxanne,” a hit by UTFO about a girl who wouldn’t respond to a guy’s advances. She freestyled some rhymes from the perspective of the girl in the song, punching back with force and style. Her song, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” became a hit, and Lolita transformed into Roxanne Shante, one of the first female hip-hop stars.
This origin story may be accurate, but make no mistake: It’s also made for Hollywood. And yet what distinguishes “Roxanne Roxanne,” a sensitively observed new movie with a dynamite performance by Chanté Adams, is that it marries a traditional hip-hop biopic, a form long dominated by male rappers, with a more idiosyncratic and deeply felt slice of life.
This movie’s intimate indie vibe is a nice match for the old-school subject, rap stardom in the days before hip-hop culture went global. The director, Michael Larnell, shows you the warts and all, but he nimbly steers clear of another cautionary tale about the evils of show business. Nor is this a superhero story with microphones and Adidas replacing utility belts and capes. (The 1980s period design here is every bit as lovingly recreated as it is on “Stranger Things.”)
The music is a backdrop for a gripping, often brutal story of the struggles of a girl growing up poor in Queens. Ms. Adams delivers a compassionate performance as a girl whose swagger and practicality hides a melancholy edge. Stardom changes her life, but less than you’d think. Early scenes show Lolita resorting to petty crime to support her family and butting heads with her strict mother (Nia Long), a compelling character who could use more screen time.
And then there’s a small galaxy of men that disappoint or abuse both mother and daughter. As her older love interest, Mahershala Ali gives a silky performance with ominous undertones that never turns into caricature. The scenes between him and Ms. Adams are charged, filmed with a patient if herky-jerky pacing. Some shots linger longer than necessary. At other times, Mr. Larnell cuts quickly, shifting from a shot of sex to pregnancy in a blink.
You get a sense of the film’s dramatic priorities from the first scene. Roxanne paces the streets preparing for a rap battle as a crowd of friends trail her. From the look on her face, you can tell she’s formidable, and when she faces off against a guy who scoffs at her, you wait for the virtuoso performance. But then the film cuts away.
Don’t worry: There will be rap battles and concert scenes and they do not disappoint. But they are the bass line beat. The drama of ordinary life is what makes this story stick in your head.