For Khadjia Review: French Montana Doc Portrays the Immigrant Rapper in a Too-Flattering Light

A classic rags-to-riches story lies at the heart of “For Khadija,” a softball documentary about Moroccan-born rapper French Montana, who was born to a family that immigrated to the United States when he was a child. The film, which portrays its subject as a self-made striving entrepreneur and artist, derives its story from testimonies from friends, colleagues, family and French Montana himself. As in last year’s Tupac series “Dear Mama,” the title serves as a dedication to the rapper’s mother, who raised him and his siblings alone after his father left the family. In this case, the film isn’t about her so much as it is a hagiographic telling of Montana’s rise to fame.

Khadija and assorted relatives recall Montana’s early days in Casablanca, and how the family left for America in the mid-1990s when he was about 13. The recollections are interwoven with old family photos, ensuring that the way time has passed registers on screen and in the faces of those interviewed. The story of how his father, a jeweler, got the family into the U.S. remains a mystery to them. They were never “legal” immigrants and for years had lived without the requisite permits. Yet Montana flourished in the Bronx as a soccer player despite not speaking English; hence the nickname “French,” as that was the language he spoke. The reasons for his father leaving the family are never resolved, which lends a palpable sadness to everyone’s memory of that time.

The film shifts to second gear when the story reaches the early 2000s, focusing on how Montana became a rapper. Driven to a life of petty crime and violence by his need to help his mother, he finds a respite in rap battles. Director Mandon Lovett weaves his testimony and that of friends and neighbors with archival footage and photos from that time to create an intriguing portrait rooted in the locale. The audience gets a clear sense of the state of the culture in New York City at that time, in addition to Montana’s story.

Later into Montana’s career, the film details a couple of major milestones in Montana’s life: how “Shot Caller” became a hit and how he got entangled with a coupe of collaborators — his late friend Chinx and the currently imprisoned rapper Max B. No minutiae in these stories is left out as the film builds the legend. Yet the testimony remains one-sided; only his friends and close associates are interviewed. The film veers into hype territory when documenting a trip to Uganda to film the video of his hit song “Unforgettable.” His relationship with a group of young Ugandan dancers who appeared in the video and his subsequent philanthropic endeavors in the country are given much prominence. Generosity and charity are commendable, of course, but in the context of a documentary produced by its central subject, it raises eyebrows.

Because the film starts with the family’s story, an expectation is born that this dimension of his life will be explored in depth, when in fact, Khadija and the rest of the family disappear for huge chunks of time. There are a few brief recalls to the framing story of Khadija going back to Morocco for the first time after becoming a legal immigrant, yet neither how that happened nor a full picture of the reunion with her relatives back home is presented. Montana’s relationship with his birth country and particularly his father is not fully realized. That’s understandable since inter-family relationships are always complex and never resolved, but given the way the film is structured, it feels more like an unfinished story.

“For Khadija” serves as the latest entry in a tried-and-true genre: the flattering personal documentary produced to market or re-introduce a famous person. Hard to fault Montana or his collaborators for making the film so self-serving, particularly since there are interesting elements in a story that blends cultures and presents a positive migrant experience. However, for a documentary about a musical artist, “For Khadija” skimps on the music and hardly includes any footage from live performances, omitting the thing fans surely want most.

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