Independent Lens: P-Star Rising

My voice is coming up hot like lava.

— P-Star

“I’m a feminist phenomenon!” A tiny girl in a pink jacket is rapping in a dark New York club. She’s wearing a puffy pink jacket and her moves are deft. “Did I mention that I play by the rules? Did I mention that my daddy is here? Did I mention,” she continues, “That I’m Puerto Rican? Did I mention what I’m really about?” When her song is done, she clambers off the stage and towards her daddy.

While it’s not entirely clear what she’s “really about,” Priscilla Star Diaz — also known as P-Star — is completely cute and lively. She has plans too. At 10 years old, she means to be the youngest female rap star ever. P-Star Rising, premiering 9 February as part of Independent Lens, follows Priscilla as she takes up this life project, with the support of her father Jesse and sister Solsky. The camera keeps close as they move from the temporary housing they’ve been in for two years (it’s “considered shelter,” Jesse sighs, but the camera can barely swing around in the room where Priscilla sleeps) and start up a relationship with a promoter named Hunc.

According to her dad, Priscilla comes by her interest in rap naturally, that is, following his own efforts in the industry during the ’80s. His career ended, he says under a photo of young and thin Jesse, arms crossed gangsta-style, when he became a father but realized that his lover Doris was a crackhead, unable to care for her children. “I was on my own,” he says, “so I had to do what I had to do, and I got caught.” Convicted for “conspiracy to distribute cocaine,” he emerged from prison determined to get his kids back. When he did, Jesse asserts, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

This seems about right. Throughout Gabriel Nobel’s film, Jesse is devoted to his girls. When P-Star has a late-night gig, he makes her meal while she sleeps, feeds her, then takes her by subway into the city: she sleeps with her head against him on the train, the car rocking, their pose serene. Hunc (a.k.a. Anthony Nixon) arranges for a showcase, and P-Star signs with UBO records. “I love you guys all,” P-Star assures the adults assembled in UBO’s office for the occasion. “And I just wanted to say, ‘You need anything from me, I got your back.’ Let’s do this!” As the child inspires her new business associates, who clap and smile at her enthusiasm, the frame is wide and low, suggesting that this show is also vaguely warped. As confident as P-Star may be, her caretakers don’t look wholly in charge.

That’s not to say her father doesn’t do his best to manage both his daughter’s burgeoning career and the household. As Jesse’s focus narrows onto Priscilla, he worries, occasionally, that he’s left Solsky on her own, calling home to check in (“I told you I wasn’t gonna have a phone, so I wouldn’t be able to call,” he reminds her from a swank beach hotel in Monterey, Mexico, where Priscilla jogs on a treadmill while rehearsing the evening’s performance). Solsky finds her own sort of peace with the imbalance: as the camera tracks her on the sidewalk, her white coat bright and her face upturned. She has a learning disability, she explains, the result of her mother’s addictions during pregnancy. Solsky harbors no resentment, and seeks refuge in religion. “I go to church,” she explains, “I’m not forced to, I go because I choose to.”

If Solsky seems a compelling documentary subject in her own right, the film, like Jesse, is repeatedly distracted by P-Star. As she and her family seek stardom and also confront its contradictions, the film offers brief, telling scenarios. The new contract provides for a new car, the camera following Priscilla and Jesse around the showroom as the pick one out. As one of her tracks accompanies the scene (“I’m just a kid, I got my dad for security, I got it made”), Jesse worries that this may not be the best time to purchase a Hummer. She reassures him: “Dad, sooner or later, you gonna have a Hummer and a Bentley and a Mercedes.”

Here and elsewhere, her poise is simultaneously endearing, heartening, and a little jarring. To its credit, P-Star Rising — which was filmed over four years — also reveals the complications of mixing family and business concerns. Priscilla’s self-narration is repeatedly and uncommonly wise, even if she sometimes makes a predictable star move (she picks out a Pomeranian that her dad thinks is too expensive, she uses the money he advances her to buy fly jeans). Priscilla tells a radio talk show host, “I’m home schooled. The good thing about that is I get to wake up a little late, the bad thing is you can’t play a trick on nobody, the teacher is watching only you.” During a recording session with Remy Ma, Priscilla sighs, “I’m not scared or anything, I’m just ready to get to business.” The scene cuts to Remy Ma, not precisely engaged. “I don’t think she’s ready,” Priscilla tells the camera. “If she has to smoke or anything, that’s all right.”

Preternaturally patient with all the needy, flustered, and demanding adults around her, Priscilla is also childish (righteously) and astute (luckily). While her dad argues with executives who want to “turn her into a little bubbly gum thing” (“She’s a rapper!”), UBO CEO Adam Kidron offers this caution on marketing per se. “If she is a brand, she’s also a little girl, so we gotta make sure that the little girl and the brand are the same thing. Otherwise, at some point, the little girl will rebel against the brand and then you’ve got nothing.” The film ends before this point, as P-Star is still rising — she wins a gig on The Electric Company, a regular paycheck and other kids around her. As she and Jesse appear to be growing up at the same time, Priscilla keeps her focus, honing her performance so it seems eerily authentic.

RATING 7 / 10