Michael Larnell’s Roxanne Roxanne obliquely concerns the so-called “Roxanne Wars,” an epic rap battle that was kicked off by a teenage girl who recorded a furious response to UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a dismissal of a woman for rejecting the group’s advances. Captured in one take on a whim, Roxanne Shanté’s song was a surprising bestseller, spurning dozens of other “response” singles in the process. Set in the early 1980s, Roxanne Roxanne likens this phenomenon to something like a bridge between traveling theater and social media, showing how East Coast rap blossomed out of the poverty and stifled creativity fostered by the projects of New York City.
Roxanne Shanté (Chanté Adams) is actually Lolita Shanté Gooden, known simply as Shanté, a child with a precocious intelligence who’s struggling to hold her family together. Early in the film, Shanté’s mother, Peggy (Nia Long), plans on moving her several daughters out of their apartment in Queensbridge into a house, for which she’s been saving a deposit for years from paychecks while working menial jobs. Peggy’s man makes off with the deposit money, however, sending her into an alcoholic tailspin. Even drunk, Peggy is a shrewd taskmaster, presiding over her children firmly, if inconsistently—emphasizing cautionary authority over love in the tradition of parents who’ve been irrevocably heartbroken. When Shanté and her sisters’ father stands them up one afternoon, Peggy tells her girls that this is a lesson in how much men are to be trusted. As the film shows it, the seeds for Shanté’s feminist anthem are being, somewhat reductively, sown.
Roxanne Roxanne has a lively sense of day-to-day texture. When Shanté transfers to an inferior high school closer to home, her new teacher regards her with an amusing and poignant glance, as if to say, “Well, make do.” Like Eminem’s underprivileged hero from 8 Mile, Shanté is understood to be capable of producing spoken verse almost involuntarily, her frustrations serving as the fertilizer for her art. To paraphrase one character, Shanté is an old-school hustler by necessity, rapping in street battles and pilfering stolen goods to keep money flowing, which Peggy chastises and resents.
Roxanne Roxanne’s actors allow this familiar material to sing. Long gives a performance of tightly coiled fury, informing her lines with percussive volatility, which Adams matches with her own musical sense of outrage and defensiveness. With his actors, Lerner forges a portrait of how black women catch trouble from all angles, for their race as well as their gender. Black men are unsentimentally shown by the film to favor a patriarchy that isn’t all that dissimilar from the prejudices of their white counterparts.
Lost, though, in the lackadaisical casualness of Roxanne Roxanne is the story of the “Roxanne Wars.” When Shanté earns her 15 minutes of fame, brushing shoulders with past and future musical legends, the film refuses to take flight along with her career. Judging strictly by what’s on screen, one can’t tell what “Roxanne’s Revenge” is precisely responding to, and we never hear Shanté’s song in its entirety. And we see preciously little of the rival rappers in the “Roxanne Wars” or of Shanté’s life in the spotlight, except for a few scenes in which managers fleece her, leading to the “fall” of a rise-and-fall formula.
These omissions feel intentional, as Lerner chooses to foreground Shanté’s family life, particularly as she follows Peggy’s example and plunges herself into an abusive relationship with a man, the dangerously charismatic Cross, who’s played by Mahershala Ali with vivid, sensual aloofness. One presumes that Lerner’s sense of emphasis is meant to humanize Shanté, defining her apart from the fame she achieved, but this stratagem backfires as Roxanne Roxanne mires itself in scenes of speechifying domestic strife. As such, the film’s central narrative appears to transpire off screen.