Patti Cake$ : Patricia Dombrowski – aka Patti Cake$, aka Killa P - is an aspiring rapper in the down-and-out end of New Jersey, battling her way through bullies and unbelievers to achieve her dreams of making it in the industry. It’s not the most original plot – and yet this predictable underdog story allows the film to explore characters and some uncomfortable themes in a new and poignant perspective.
Underdog with some bite. Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is your typical underdog – down on her luck but optimistic, persistent in her fight for her dreams, and relatable. Plus, she can rap – like, exhilarating, want to shout “Yaaasssss girl!” at the screen kind of rap. Flanked by her outsider friends, Patti and her group, PBNJ, are poster children for diversity battling against the music industry monolith. The predictability of the plot gives room to explore this in a more nuanced way than your typical Honey/Step-Up feel-good; this film not only focuses on the out-and-out racism, misogyny socio-economic challenges that Patti, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) must battle against to achieve their happy ending in this story, but also the micro-aggressions of their everyday experience. The examination of casual comments, assumptions, and limitations of their ethnicity, socio-economic circumstances, and gender are what give this film the extra depth that raises it above its counterparts.
All is fair in a fairy tale. What brings the film together is the fantasy element; Patti daydreams of making it as a rapper, acceptance from her hero O-Z and living her dream of success. Director Geremy Jasper cleverly visualizes this through dreamy imaginary scenes – Patti floating up to the clouds, away from her dreary life towards O-Z in the clouds. This element of fairy tale skilfully allows us to suspend our disbelief over the ridiculously lucky breaks, over-sentimentality and a convenient happy ending that usually comes with the underdog-comes-good story. How does a bunch of misfits come up with a string of hits so quickly? What are the chances of that final scene actually working? We can roll with it because Patti is a badass Cinderella and we are all rooting for her.
White privilege strikes again. There is a downside; for a story that features a white protagonist and the rap genre, cultural appropriation is only just mentioned in this film, and clumsily at that. The genres of rap and hip-hop are undisputedly entrenched in African American civil rights movements since the 80s and 90s, and the ongoing discussion of appropriation vs appreciation of the genre still rages – rightly so. This film gently questions this – Patti is an overweight white girl from New Jersey and is told she will never make it in rap because of this, regardless of her talent. Her hero in this film affirms this; rapper O-Z, who makes it clear that rap is the cultural property of African Americans. What irks me here is that the film could have explored this more – is it a coincidence that Patti’s music sounds like Iggy Azalea? But instead it reduces issue as two-sided; the haters vs the underdogs – the haters here mainly being men and African Americans already in the game, despising outsiders who don’t fit in. This is great for the comfortable storyline, but it exposes Jasper’s ambiguous intent. Is Patti a culture vulture exercising her white privilege, or not? Does that mean that the cultural and gender diversity of the misfit characters was used by Jasper as some kind of buffer so he can critique African American cultural ownership? This film is hazy on the whole topic and it sticks awkwardly in an otherwise stellar film.