Sundance Review: 'Roxanne Roxanne' Starring Chante Adams, Nia Long, And Mahershala Ali

If you grew up with hip-hop in the '80s then surely you know the name Roxanne Shante, the Queensbridge battle rappin' goddess who took rap by storm.  She became famous for her diss verse in which she took on the mantle of the unattainable "Roxanne" from UTFO's hit track "Roxanne Roxanne", and kicked off what became known as the "Roxanne Wars" in which female rappers battled up and down the state. The 14-year old Lolita "Shante" Gooden became an instant megastar, but her story isn't particularly well-known, which makes Roxanne Roxanne a great opportunity to give the rap legend some richly deserved shine.

The problem is that Roxanne Shante's story, full of hardship and drugs and abusive men, isn't particularly unique. The film, written and directed by Michael Larnell (who had the atrocious urban drama Cronies here at Sundance last year) gets by on the swagger of newcomer Chante Adams' furious performance and its immersion into the style and culture of hip-hop (Kangol is back, baby!), although one can't help but think there is a better Roxanne Shante story left to be told.

The film begins exactly where it should, however, with a young Roxanne and her best friend/hype man off to challenge a grown man to a rap battle. "The champ is here, the champ is here" ringing throughout the crowd as the man looks anxious to be battling a kid. "Can I curse?", Roxanne asks her mother (Nia Long), who responds, "I don't care what you do as long as you get that $50."

It's a small example of the economic turmoil Roxanne and her family deal with, made worse by the presence of no-good men in their lives. Her mom's hopes of leaving the projects for a better life dashed by a man who ran off with her down payment, the resulting depression sends Roxanne (and her mother) spiraling down different paths. Mom turns to liquor, while Roxanne turns to shoplifting and battle rapping to make ends meet. While going off to do laundry she's called out by Marley (legendary DJ Marley Marl) to do a verse set to the aforementioned UTFO beat. The resulting track, "Roxanne's Revenge", blew up and Roxanne Shante was born. But with success comes more problems, like the attentions of men who don't have her best interests. Oscar-nomined Moonlight star Mahershala Ali takes on another drug dealer role as Cross, except there's no heart of gold within this thug. While he lavishes the still-teenage Roxanne with expensive gifts to buy her affections, he has no problems with putting his hands on her, either. In one of Larnell's most impressive visual cues we zip through the entirety of Roxanne and Cross' relationship. The camera positioned behind her head, we experience three levels of pain she faces: first when Cross takes her virginity (she's maybe 15 at this point), then as she gives birth to their son, and then later as he's dragging her across the floor.

Rockin' braces and Roxanne Shante's fearsome scowl, Chante Adams captures the rapper's angry energy and love of the battle.When breaks into a battle it really is like seeing the old Roxanne Shante back at the height of her powers, while Long shines in a role that is as tough as it is tender. Ali, who has spent the last year playing good-hearted criminals, doesn't get any redemptive qualities to chew on this time and the role can't help but feel like a worn-out stereotype.

Fans of hip-hop's golden era will find a lot to smile about. The shoes, the clothes, everything feels authentic, right down to the dookie gold chains.  When part of Roxanne's crew offers to beatbox her next show, we instantly know that guy is future icon Biz Markie. Other key figures in rap history pop up, such as MC Shan and a young kid we know will grow up to be Nas. After introducing the four elements of hip-hop (breakin', rappin', graffiti, DJing) early on I was hoping we'd see a little bit more of that represented, but what Larnell does get across is how hip-hop, and Roxanne's success, was seen as a source of pride to the poor Queensbridge residents.

Oddly enough, the film comes to rest at a point that shows promise for Nas rather than Roxanne. It's a strange decision, but perhaps the reason is that Roxanne Shante's career never really takes off the way it should have. The years she spent with Cross were her moment to shine but the one thing they didn't produce was an album. By the time she had finally gotten away from him, her moment was gone. There's a more interesting story to be told about Roxanne's wasted potential, and it comes just when the movie is wrapping up. Roxanne Roxanne prefers to end on a hopeful note rather than an honest one. But the entire movie pretty much lets her off the hook for any bad decisions, preferring to put blame on untrustworthy men.  A more "warts and all" biopic might have left the kind of indelible mark that Roxanne Shante left on the world of hip-hop.

Rating: 3 out of 5