Patricia, also known as Patti Cake$, also known as Killa P, is the unlikely hero in this comic hip-hop film.
Patti (Danielle Macdonald) comes from a poor, single parent family. She has a rocky relationship with her alcoholic mum (Bridget Everett), and works multiple minimum wage jobs in a constant struggle to pay her nan’s (Cathy Moriarty) medical bills.
She is abused about her weight constantly, and sexually harassed by customers at work.
But in dream-like scenes she escapes from this harsh reality to a glamorous world of fur robes, glimmering mics and gold teeth. Hip-hop is her fantasy.
She teams up with Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), an Indian pharmacist, and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a reclusive black anarchist who calls himself the “Antichrist”. When they perform they can, for a moment, forget their situations.
Director Geremy Jasper’s background in shooting music videos, including for Selena Gomez and Florence and the Machine, is apparent throughout. He also wrote all the surprisingly good tracks in the film.
As a white woman, Patti doesn’t easily fit with the image of male-dominated and traditionally black hip-hop scene. This often seems to be her biggest barrier to winning recognition.
She is told to “act her race” by white people, and is accused by black artists of being a “culture vulture”.
White hip-hop artists such as Macklemore, Iggy Azalea and Eminem have similarly been accused of “cultural appropriation” in recent years. The argument is that they are “stealing” from black culture and claiming it for white people.
Hip-hop arose from predominantly black neighbourhoods in a society where black people were excluded and shunned from representation in the arts.
It provided a rare way for black people to express themselves. Some of the most acclaimed hip-hop artists have used it to slam racism and oppression. So it’s understandable that many people are wary of having it taken from them.
But Patti is not trying to “act a race”. She is acting her class.
She identifies with the anger in hip-hop not because she wants to be black but because she identifies with a tradition that empowers the powerless.
In many ways her struggles are typical of white workers in the US today—and have much in common with the struggles of working class black people.
The film isn’t perfect. There’s a regrettable use of cheap stereotypes, particularly Jheri who is too often treated as a joke. Patti’s mum was also at times a bit of a stock character.
But overall Patti Cake$ is enjoyable, moving and engaged in some key contemporary debates. I’d recommend it to any hip-hop fan, film lover or socialist.