“Patti Cake$” shows cultural appropriation at its best.
Until last week I didn’t know that listening to Nina Simone can now be considered cultural appropriation in countries such as Holland and Germany. (Thanks, Twitter.) Don’t ask me to explain it, just know that the idiocy on either side of the Atlantic knows no bounds.
I do wonder what those afraid to enjoy “My Baby Just Cares for Me” would make of Patti Cake$. The movie is a sweet, smart, at times moving indy coming out of Sundance. Should we condemn the white director/writer/composer (Geremy Jasper, who debuts) and his white, overweight, female, rapping prodigy from New Jersey named Killa P? Are Jasper and his creation bad for appropriating misogynist black music and turning it into an uplifting tale of self-realization?
The question is probably best left to the online mob and critical theorists. The rest of us can just enjoy this coming-of-age tale. It’s a good story, traditionally told, about a big-sized girl (Australian actress Danielle Macdonald), who won’t let a rough start in life bring her down. While facing down her abusive mother and neighborhood bullies she zooms in on what she’s good at: rapping, rhyming, and making friends with odd characters such as a witty Indian pharmacist/rapper (the delightful Siddharth Dhananjay) and a mysterious black anarchist named Basterd (Mamoudou Athie).
Thrown together by luck and terrible circumstances they manage to produce a few tracks that pique the interest of a local deejay in New Jersey. The unlikely headliner in the group is always Patricia Dombrowski, who calls herself Killa P, while her local tormentors call her Dumbo. She also calls herself White Trish. She is living in a dump of a house with her alcoholic mom, a splendid role by Bridget Everett. In the best scenes of the movie, Macdonald and Everett bring out very good acting in each other, making us root for both of them as they figure out their sad lives.
The fast rhymes of Killa P bring back memories of 8 Mile, Eminem’s 2002 feature, and Hustle & Flow (2005). Like Eminem’s story, Patti Cake$ is a straightforward narrative about a struggling kid trying to find her way out of the misery given to her. We have seen it all before; every other film seems to be about some poor youngster trying to escape and make it big. We just haven’t seen it done this way.
Some might criticize the film as too traditional, even sentimental. To me, the director chose wisely by sticking to a tried-and-true format, so that we can focus on the crazy talent of a big, curly girl who stays upbeat and determined to follow her talent, ignoring the torment she suffers throughout the film.
“I was a chubby, blond Jersey kid writing raps and making an ass of myself at talent shows,” said director Jasper in a Variety interview. Apparently Killa P is a bit of an alter ego. Good for him: like his protagonist Jasper wouldn’t accept his fate. He didn’t look for a handout. Instead he fought to do what he loved, just like she does in Patti Cake$.
One does not need to like hiphop to enjoy this movie. In fact, the climactic musical scene is the best of all, and it fuses Patti’s rap with her mother’s love of classic rock. That scene, and the rest of film too, made me glad that Jasper decided to ‘appropriate’ freely as he made his debut film about a white, female rapper named Killa P.
Patti Cake$, directed by Geremy Jasper, is rated R. It opens Friday, August 18 in select theaters.
Patti Cake$ trailer (screenshot)