by Melissa Kimble
One might forget that Roxanne Shanté was only a teenager when she changed the game. But a viewing of Roxanne Roxanne, the Netflix film about the rap powerhouse born Lolita Shanté Gooden, will remind you. The rap battle champ had been destroying her competition since childhood and by the time she was 13 she solidified her spot with “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Her story, brought to life by creative and film powerhouses Nina Yang Bongiovi and Mimi Valdés, was named one Netflix's most watched films of the year. And as the first biopic to center a female rapper and tell her incredible story through an incredible cast, Roxanne Roxanne is the best movie of 2018. Period.
The movie is a necessary piece of music history. From the door knockers to the matching fur coats for couples to the spray painted shirts, the style of the 80s is on full display. Add this to the makeup of the families and communities in the Queensbridge Houses, and the film gives viewers a full mirror look at “the Golden era of Hip-Hop.” Without a doubt, Shanté’s indelible mark on the industry is still felt today, every time your favorite rappers take shots at each other. Just as JJ Fad opened the door for NWA, Roxanne Shante opened the door for rap battles as we know them today. The film takes you through her journey, explaining why the pioneer’s star didn’t shine as bright as one would’ve hoped due to issues with money and managers in the industry.
Beyond this, the cast provides a stellar and sturdy foundation for an important story. In her first role, newcomer Chante Adams, is undeniable as Roxanne Shanté. Although she was born after this historic era, Chante delivers the tenacity and passion of the young rapper with ease and a strong on screen presence. “I think Chanté was born for the part. Her parents made her for me,” the real Shanté told the New York Times. The weight of carrying the role of a Hip-Hop legend is grounded by two legends in their own right - Nia Long and Mahershala Ali.
Considered by DJ Booth as “the most Hip-Hop man in Hollywood”, Mahershala is heartbreakingly evil as Cross, the older drug dealer that Shanté falls in love with. However their relationship turns sour when it becomes abusive. Mahershala masterfully plays the antagonist - gracefully evil, cool and demanding. It’s equally as delightful to see Nia Long shine as Shante’s mother - full of depth, grit, and a rawness. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Long had a connection to Roxanne.
“I was singing her records in the bathroom mirror with my braces, bangs, ponytail and red lipstick,” she told the Times. “You never know how things that shaped your life as a girl will come back and reshape your life.”
The Roxanne Shanté story also finds our hero navigating sexual advances from men and addressing the physical abuse she endured at the hands of her lover. This isn’t your average coming-of-age story. This also isn’t permission for you to feel sorry for her. The beauty in this film is that it presents Black girls and Black women in a way that doesn’t celebrate our pain but instead highlights our resilience. And in the midst of the #MeToo movement, founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the movie tells her story through the lens of power, not weakness. She knew who she was from an early age and despite the struggles stood up for herself. And in a year where rap beefs have been crazy (see Cardi vs. Nicki), it’s great to see the one of the originators, a 13-year-old girl who out-rapped grown men, finally getting her flowers with Roxanne Roxanne. Roxanne Shanté inspires us to never stay silent. Here’s to more of our stories seeing the light.
Melissa Kimble, who splits her time between Chicago and Brooklyn, is a writer, digital strategist, and founder of #blkcreatives, a collective that advocates for Black genius across across Creative industries.