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Review: 1980s rap drama ‘Roxanne Roxanne’ crackles with power of sisterhood

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Chanté Adams and Mahershala Ali in the movie “Roxanne Roxanne.”
(Netflix)

Non-aficionados won’t know the name Roxanne Shanté, and even among fans she might have receded to the realm of pop-culture footnote. But the Queens hip-hop prodigy’s story grabs the mic in “Roxanne Roxanne,” a film that breaks the musical biopic mold in ways that are sometimes frustrating and frequently exhilarating.

As the tough and talented New Yorker, riveting newcomer Chanté Adams is the embodiment of outer-borough moxie. The formidable rap-battle champ, birth name Lolita Shanté Gooden, was only 14 when she became a recording sensation. In a neighbor’s DIY studio, she freestyled a response to a track by Brooklyn hip-hoppers UTFO — in one impatient take, so she could finish doing laundry. She was a girl talking back to the boys, and “Roxanne’s Revenge,” released in 1984, hit big.

Writer-director Michael Larnell (“Cronies”) treats the wider scope of rap history as a fractured kaleidoscopic backdrop. That leaves disorienting gaps in an otherwise electrifying first-person chronicle. At the movie’s core are the intertwined threads of sisterhood and treacherous men. Warnings of the latter danger are drummed into Shanté by her hard-bitten mother (Nia Long, superb), but still she falls for drug dealer Cross (Mahershala Ali), all smooth flash and hair-trigger jealousy.

Two brilliant sequences take the film to powerful depths. In one, a trio of rhyming images morph from sexual initiation to childbirth agony to domestic abuse. The other, a harrowing encounter between a bathing Shanté and the menacing Cross, turns into a baptism: Having grown up incredibly fast, a young woman takes stock of her life, and reclaims it.

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‘Roxanne Roxanne’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: iPic Westwood

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