Patti is a plus-size white girl from a run-down New Jersey suburb. She has few friends and a dead-end job at a dive bar, where her alcoholic mom is a karaoke regular. But in her flights of fantasy, she's a rap star. She has skills, too. She just needs to find her voice and a break.
Patti Cake$, the Sundance sensation fueled by a breakout performance by Danielle Macdonald, speaks to one of hip-hop's defining traits. It's a culture that invites aspiring artists to dream out loud, to seek a voice of authenticity and, with any luck, riches. Patti, odds stacked high against her, is after nothing less than self-actualization. She's an outsider trying to crash a party created by outsiders. She wants to let them know what it's like to walk eight miles in her shoes.
"I've always been amazed at how hip-hop can transform people," writer/director Geremy Jasper says by phone. "It's almost like they become superheroes, bigger than life. It's an art form where you can air out some of your dirty laundry in a really creative way, or take some of your shortcomings and twist them so they become braggadocios."
Of the infinite ways to create identity, rhyming over beats holds a special place in the recent cultural imagination. Think Biggie Smalls, the rotund Brooklyn street hustler who turned his verbal skills and daydreaming into superstar status. Biggie's signature hit, "Juicy," is hip-hop's ultimate rags-to-riches fable, its aspirational anthem: "Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this."
Keep in mind this isn't the life Biggie was living when he wrote "Juicy." It was the life he willed himself into through music. It was his dream, until it was his reality.
If the Patti Cake$ premise brings you a chuckle of déjà vu, Jasper is in on the joke. "This film is like Son of 8 Mile," Jasper says. "It's about the kids who grew up watching 8 Mile." Kids like Patti and her only friend (Siddharth Dhananjay), an Indian pharmacist who imagines himself singing Patti's vocal hooks and running the business. But who's gonna make the beats? How about the black anarchist (Mamoudou Athie) who lives like a hermit in his studio out in the woods. Outcasts from society, and from hip-hop itself, these three fit in absolutely nowhere. That's why they make for a classic underdog story.
The 8 Mile comparison is instructive beyond superficial similarities. Starring and based on the life of Eminem, himself a superstar when the movie came out in 2002, 8 Mile is about a poor white kid, Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith, trying to make it in a black man's game. In the film's climactic, galvanizing rap battle, he triumphs by embracing his true identity and turning it into gleefully profane poetry. Yes, I'm poor white trash, and I live in a trailer with my mom. Tell me something I don't know.
Through hip-hop, he has achieved a form of authenticity, followed, presumably, by stardom. (The artist heard most frequently on the 8 Mile soundtrack, blaring from parties and car stereos? Biggie Smalls).
Like Eminem himself, Jimmy has been hardened by white boy taunts — "Elvis," "Leave it to Beaver" — hurled by the hip-hop gatekeepers who see merely the color of his skin. There's obviously history here: Mainstream culture has been absorbing, some would say stealing, black musical styles for hundreds of years. It's still a sore spot.
So Patti, like Jimmy, has to claim her own identity. She has to flip the taunts of "Dumbo" on their head. She's accused of being a culture thief, an interloper. But she persists. She's in a post-Eminem age; hip-hop crossed the color line long ago, shifting from outsider art to international cultural juggernaut. More than ever, it makes room for all dreamers, anyone aspiring to create a self through beats, rhymes and life.