The days of gatekeeping hip-hop as a genre reserved exclusively for people of color from the trenches of America are kind of over. I’m not happy about it, but that’s just the way it is. The Lil Dickys and Iggy Azaleas of the world, and the people that have worked tirelessly to catapult them into fame, burst that bubble long ago. From beauty and fashion to music and language, white people can’t keep their hands off of Black culture. Patti Cake$ (opening August 18), which is about a plus-sized white girl from New Jersey who seeks to leave the bleak circumstances of her life behind to find success in a rap career, is the story of one such white girl. However, the road to rap can be different for even the white people who represent the genre’s minority. The question posed by Patti Cake$ goes beyond white people in hip-hop culture. Instead, viewers are forced to reconcile their understanding of belonging and culture itself.
The debate in which some people are going engage after viewing the film is whether or not the protagonist, Patti (Danielle Macdonald), is a culture vulture or not. It’s worth noting that there are several key scenes where Patti literally forces herself into spaces that don’t belong to her. She barges into the secluded home of Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a Black goth kid who calls himself the antichrist and makes heavy metal music. Patti gets him to make beats for her, despite his protests.
Later, when her side hustle as catering staff leads her to the home of her rap idol O-Z (who is played by Sahr Ngaujah and honestly more of a caricature than an actual rapper), she is just as pushy. While delivering his drink, Patti starts rapping and gives him her mixtape without any proper greeting. Instead of being blown away by her flow, he gives her an art lesson, calls her a culture vulture, ashes his cigar on her CD, and has her escorted off of the premises.
Nevertheless, what is made strikingly clear pretty early on is that white privilege is not necessarily working in her favor in her endeavor to make it big as a rapper. Her physical appearance has made her an outcast in her small New Jersey homeplace. Patti’s mother Barb (Bridget Everett) is known for getting sloppy drunk at the bar where they both work. They struggle to take care of bills and Patti’s Nana (Cathy Moriarty). As a young white woman, it is her desire to be a rapper in the first place; her proximity to men of color like Basterd and Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), and her willingness to embrace this alterity makes her an outcast. This isn’t a rag-to-riches story as much as it is a rumination on the social scripts about femininity, race, and class. It’s almost an experiment, if you will.
As for Patti’s place in the rap game? In the words of Randy Jackson, it’s gonna be a no for me. While Patti can certainly makes some words rhyme, she has no flow. And her PBNJ crew have mastered the kind of hip-pop sound that makes me cringe way more than Iggy Azalea ever would.