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With Netflix's 'Roxanne Roxanne,' the story of hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shanté is finally told

With Netflix's 'Roxanne Roxanne,' the story of hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shanté is finally told
Pioneering hip-hop artist Roxanne Shanté. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The first time you press play on Roxanne Shanté’s visionary hip-hop single “Roxanne’s Revenge,” you’re hearing it just as the artist did: with no idea about what’s coming next.

Shanté was just 14 when she cut the freestyled tune in a single take between loads of laundry, true to the fraught, freewheeling spirit of the music coming from the projects of Queensbridge in New York City in the mid-’80s.

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In a brassy, confident voice, she steps to the mic for the first time to craft a rebuttal to the U.T.F.O. hit “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a song about a woman who was romantically disinterested in the group: “Well, my name is Roxanne, a-don't ya know / I just a-cold rock a party, and I do this show.”

The song became a sensation at the time. But Shanté eventually slipped from view over the years, and hip-hop ascended from New York’s housing projects to become perhaps the world’s dominant musical idea. Now Shanté’s story — with all the tragedy, joy and music that accompanied one of early rap’s most fascinating figures — is finally getting the show she deserves.

"Roxanne Roxanne,” a new feature film from Netflix co-produced by Pharrell Williams, zeros in on her teenage life at the cusp of a brand new culture. And in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’s also a salient story about a young black woman fighting to make a creative statement in an exploitative music industry, and in a society that rarely valued people like her.

“I love her because she understood her job was never to be a superstar, but to open doors for people like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and Cardi B,” said Chanté Adams, who plays Shanté in the film. “I’m so elated she’s getting accolades. Knowing what she went through, she deserves all of it.”

Even before this film, Shanté wasn’t an unknown by any stretch. “Roxanne’s Revenge” hit No. 22 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts in 1985, and she appeared on Rick James’ “Loosey’s Rap,” which topped that same chart in 1988. Director Michael Larnell remembered seeing the video for “Roxanne’s Revenge” as a young music fan and being fascinated by her charisma.

“I had to know who she was,” Larnell said. “Her voice just got to me.”

Larnell, who studied film at NYU with Spike Lee and previously directed the 2015 feature “Cronies,” came into the project with clear memories of Shanté’s music. Yet he was curious to find out what had happened to her in the intervening years. When he learned about her cycles of abuse at the hands of her family, music peers and boyfriends, his vision for the project shifted.

“I wanted to focus on the music at first, and the world of Queensbridge. But after she told me what she went through, I wanted to focus on her feelings, to have the focus be on her,” he said. “It was a big relief to get this story out there. People always wondered why she’d gone away. She was a big thing back then, but she was just a teen with all the pressure on her as a young lady in a male field.”

To play such a one-of-a-kind figure in music history, he needed a young actor who could rap with technical ferocity yet stay vulnerable enough to portray Shanté’s private pain. “Roxanne Roxanne” should be a breakout debut feature for Adams, who plays Shanté with gleeful bravado in the battle-rap scenes, but with raw vulnerability and resilience offstage.

“I could see the confidence in her. She’s cool and sweet, but then really competitive,” Larnell said of Adams. “She had that balance.”

“I had older siblings who were hardcore hip-hop fans so I was familiar with the era. But I was discovering her in real time, I had no idea she’d been through so much,” Adams said. “I tried to connect with the things I could relate to. I’ve never had an abusive boyfriend but I have had tensions with my [family] and I’ve thought I was young and in love before. I was thinking about all the women who went through that in childhood, and made it my job to tell their story.”

As the young Shanté discovers her talent, she slays men twice her age with uncanny wit and instinct. The music scenes are some of the best on-screen evocations of rapping since “Straight Outta Compton,” an obvious recent reference point for “Roxanne Roxanne” (though the former takes a 30,000-foot view of N.W.A’s rise, while “Roxanne” is much more intimate).

Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA contributed original music to the score. Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi of “Fruitvale Station” and “Dope” are co-producers of the film.

But the heart of the movie is Adams’ depiction of Shanté’s inner life, one in which an incredible talent is failed or exploited by nearly everyone around her. Mahershala Ali plays almost an inverse of his benevolent “Moonlight” character as a velvet-tonged drug dealer who becomes her boyfriend and violent underminer, and Nia Long is superb and harrowing as Shanté’s stormy mother.

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The film twins these moments of bleakness with the redemptive power of music and self-understanding. For everyone following Hollywood lately, it’s likely no coincidence that “Roxanne’s” themes of self-assertion are ringing true. For young women of color who see the film, its star hopes they leave it feeling like Shanté taking that mic: I can do this, and I must.

“The film is arriving at a perfect time with #MeToo and Time’s Up. I hope its represents all those,” Adams said. “Women especially will take something from away the film. We want women to watch it and not feel alone, to know that whatever is happening, you can overcome it. Whatever you’re going through, there is a light at the end and it’s bright and beautiful.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Roxanne Roxanne’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: iPic Westwood

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