Sunday, March 5, 2017

New Directors New Films: Patti Cake$

As the bass-heavy, dance club-lit dream that opens writer-director Geremy Jaspers's Patti Cake$ makes clear, Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is a legend in her own mind, a stadium-thrilling rapper who goes by Killa P or Patti Cake$. But to almost everyone else she's just a fat girl, so large that the bros in Bayonne, her down-at-the-heels hometown, call her Dumbo.

Making someone who looks like Patti the star of a film—and not a self-loathing victim but a resourceful heroine with talent, self-confidence, and a handsome and supportive boyfriend—is a gutsy opening move in our fat-shaming world. Even more provocative is how Patti's defiant rhymes, which Macdonald spits with gutsy brio, draw a parallel between the casual contempt Patti encounters daily because of her size and the racism that's the implicit or explicit subject of the music she loves. When Patti raps about the grievances of an overweight white girl stuck in strip-mall suburbia, is she a legitimate artist stretching the boundaries of her chosen form? Or is she, as her idol, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), puts it after she gives him an impromptu audition, a contemptible “culture vulture” who's trying to be something she's not?

The film leaves that question unanswered for some time, and when Patti's rhymes slip into the kind of imitative, gangsta posturing that sounds pretty tired from almost anyone and comes off as borderline ludicrous in the mouth of a white girl, it looks as if O-Z is right. But what makes her heroic is that she's always striving to express herself as honestly as possible, and at their best, her rhymes are a reminder of how much all low-income Americans have in common, regardless of race. That's not cultural co-option, but rather cultural cohesion—and, as President Obama pointed out in his farewell address, it's something we'd all do well to remember these days. Read the rest in Slant Magazine

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