The desperation is palpable, the pitfalls predictable and the road rough in “Roxanne Roxanne,” one rapper’s rise during the early years of New York hip hop.
Michael Larnell’s flinty and uplifting film of the early days of Lolita “Roxanne Shanté” Gooden, the Queen of Queensbridge, a mid-80s fury who became a years-in-the-making “overnight success” and role model, lives on grit and heart and some terrific performances by Chanté Adams, Nia Long and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.
It started early — VERY early — with little best friend Ranita (Olivia Bucknor) hyping street battle tween Shante (Taliyah Whitaker) with “The CHAMP is here, the CHAMP is here.”
Shante’s already a local legend, brushing off challengers and dismissing pretenders at will, demanding more and more just to participate in these one-on-one rhyme-offs.
Her mom (Long, in her fiercest role in years and best performance in ages) is strict and protective, counting that cash money when it comes in, saving for the day they can get out of The Projects.
Then her man (Curtiss Cook) skeedaddles with her savings (cliche alert), Mom crawls into a bottle and teen Shante’ (newcomer Chante’ Adams) is just hustling (shoplifting for hire) and battling just to keep her and her three little sisters afloat.
“If you touch me…I won’t rest ’til you in a grave or hearse. You the worst and this is LADIES first.
“I’m the best and I don’t care what the rest think…I ain’t rhymin’ no more cuz your breath stink.”
Her big break is an offhand track (“Roxanne Roxanne”) for a neighbor (Kevin Phillips) with a bedroom recording set-up, and “Roxanne Shante'” is born, fame and fortune hers for the taking.
Except it isn’t. Larnell takes us deeper and deeper into the dark side. And booze hound or not, her mother saw it coming, warned her even as she was giving her “the only braces in the projects.”
Man after man lets her down, assaults her, steals from her. And bitter Mom, gossiping with the other single moms of the projects, knows that girls have to learn “to be disappointed by a man at an early age.”
“Take this as a lesson,” she says when the girls wait for an Easter Sunday pickup from their absentee father. “This is what happens when you think they love you and they don’t.”
Shante’ gets on the radio, and suddenly dubious older men pf every stripe are courting her favor. They’re all gifts of bling and promises, “I got you. “I’m always gonna be right there.” “Can I be your man?” “You gonna need protection.”
We hope she’s keeping a wary eye for the dangerous ones, a dismissive snort to the inept ones. But she’s green.
Ali, showing the same cagey blend of good-bad man that won him the Oscar for “Moonlight,” comes on smooth, sentimental and absurdly inappropriate. He talks about wanting “family” in his life, but he’s just another brutalizing pimp — the meanest among many.
Shante”s already been assaulted and cheated — she’s 16. She can’t see it.
Larnell lets us have the uplift of “You’re on the RADIO!” and sudden, hard-earned glory. Club bouncers demand, “Lemme see your teeth.” Can’t have that damned kid with the braces in here wrecking our rap battles.
He has Long carry the comic weight, a woman determined to have something better for her kids even as life derails her hopes. Those braces cost money.
“Get your damn thumb out of your mouth.”
The journey may be an over-familiar one, the tale of a “somebody you don’t know, but you should” if you love hip hop.
Props to Ali for and Long signing on to get it made, and a tip of the hat to Netflix for grabbing a story — even a worn one — about a population underserved by cinema.
And Ms. Adams? We’re all going to be keeping an eye on you.
MPAA Rating: TV:MA
Cast: Chanté Adams, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali, Taliyah Whitaker
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Larnell. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:40