Hip-hop biopics are a Hollywood mainstay. But until now, the subgenre has largely favored male rappers (N.W.A., Tupac, Biggie, Eminem) and it’s been rare to find a movie that successfully cements the legacy of a female artist. Sundance hit “Roxanne Roxanne” changes that, bringing to life the story of ‘80s sensation Lolita Shante Gooden, better known as Roxanne Shante, hip-hop’s first commercially successful female artist.
Available to stream now on Netflix, the biopic offers an authentic portrayal of the talented Queens-bred teen’s unlikely rise to stardom and the inevitable hurdles she’s forced to overcome along the way. Featuring an acclaimed lead performance by newcomer Chanté Adams (who was awarded 2017 Sundance Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Dramatic Performance), the film details Shante’s time living in the projects with her mom and three sisters and the life-changing invite she received from a neighbor to freestyle on one of his tracks. The song, called “Roxanne’s Revenge,” went viral 1980s-style, playing on the radio nonstop and rocketing the spunky, brace-faced 14-year-old to instant hip-hop fame.
Directed by Michael Larnell and executive produced by Roxanne Shante herself, “Roxanne Roxanne” is an inspiring origin story about a musical underdog, complete with rap battles and concert sequences. But more than that, the movie is an empowering tribute to an impressive woman, joining the ranks of some of our favorite Netflix originals where strong female voices dominate.
“Mudbound” (2017) — Watch on Netflix
Rachel Morrison made history at this year’s Oscars as the first female nominee in the Best Cinematography category for her work on “Mudbound.” It’s a well deserved honor: Morrison imbues the film’s sprawling, muddy fields with a sense of yearning and futility, and every single one of her shots is gritty and mesmerizing. Combine that with director Dee Rees’ uncompromising eye and you’ve got a story that’s at once epic and intimate, richly stylized and authentically raw.
Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan shine in the ensemble cast, rendering their motherly roles with a balance of tenderness and rigor. Raising their families in the Jim Crow South, these women may live in a white man’s world, but Rees makes sure to carve out space for the female characters’ own sensibilities, desires, and moments of power. Though Rees was robbed of Oscar nods for directing and best picture, her film is a model of excellence for women both in front of and behind the camera, and its awards snubs are sure to be remembered with frustration for years to come.
“Casting JonBenet” (2017) — Watch on Netflix
It was one of the strangest and most distressing unsolved mysteries of the 1990s: six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in her family’s Colorado basement with a lengthy handwritten ransom note. In her probing Sundance documentary, Kitty Green chronicles the process of casting actors for a fictional rendering of the story, inviting a series of professional and nonprofessional performers to “audition” for the parts of JonBenet and her parents.
The actors read lines and then speak freely about their theories surrounding the enigmatic murder — some reasoned out, others more far-fetched and conspiratorial. The result is a kind of post-mortem case analysis that toes the line between fiction and nonfiction, exploitation and expression, conjecture and truth. Bringing a shrewd observational eye and discerning depth of thought, Green is a talent to be reckoned with, and her unique vision and voice shouldn’t be missed.
Alias Grace (2017) — Watch on Netflix
Margaret Atwood, whose novel “Alias Grace” came out in 1996, has seen quite the resurgence in the past year. And it’s no wonder why: her tense, female-driven stories are an apt match for our cultural climate, and we’re lucky to have Atwood as a guiding feminist light in this watershed moment for women in Hollywood and beyond. Since the release of “Alias Grace” as a six part miniseries last year, the psychological 1840s period piece has been lauded as a timely, cautionary reminder of an era when suppression and maltreatment of women — especially those in the working class — was the norm.
Adapted by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, “Alias Grace” stars Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks, an aggrieved immigrant housemaid who may or not may not have murdered her employer and his mistress. “I wonder how much sublimated rage she must have carried with her, this child harassed on every corner,” a psychiatrist muses as he struggles to unravel Grace’s role in the crime. She may be a 19th century domestic servant, but Grace’s “sublimated rage” has doubtlessly resonated with a lot of contemporary women, too.
“First They Killed My Father” (2017) — Watch on Netflix
Angelina Jolie isn’t any stranger to war movies. Before “First They killed My Father,” Jolie helmed the acclaimed 2014 World War II survival story “Unbroken,” and before that her 2011 directorial debut “In the Land of the Blood and Honey” explored art and love across Yugoslav boundaries during the Bosnian War. For her newest addition, Jolie brings her seasoned eye to mid-1970s Cambodia where she follows a young girl’s struggle to survive under the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime.
Adapted from Loung Ung’s harrowing memoir, the film is presented entirely from Loung’s point of view as a wide-eyed seven-year-old whose family is torn from their metropolitan home and forced into a rural labor camp. Though the film doesn’t back away from the horrors Loung confronted, Jolie wisely resists sentimentalizing the story. Instead, Jolie depicts Loung’s trials with an eye toward her bravery and resilience, never losing sight of the implacable spirit that enabled Loung to survive.
“The Crown” (2016 – 2017) — Watch on Netflix
No list of strong female narratives would be complete without Peter Morgan’s prestige historical drama “The Crown,” the celebrated TV series charting the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Racking up back-to-back SAG wins along with a Golden Globe for Season 1, Claire Foy dazzles as the show’s regal breakout star and center of gravity.
The first season, which spans from 1947 through 1955, zeroes in on the young sovereign’s unexpected assumption of the throne and her rocky learning curve as Queen. Foy balances Elizabeth’s fortitude and quick wit with more relatable moments of indecision and self-doubt — not to mention a royal knack for comic timing. As the show stretches on, there’s no doubt that Her Majesty will continue her run as an exemplar of power, both as a dignified monarch and influential female voice.