No, it’s not a gangsta rap remake of the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman classic (which might not be a bad idea, come to think of it). Notorious is – or was – Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, aka the Notorious BIG, the formidable east coast rapper murdered by person(s) unknown in 1997.
Biggie was larger than life in more ways than one; he stood 6’3” and weighed over 300 pounds. He started dealing drugs at age 12 (his mother worked two jobs and his father moved out when he was two). By 17 he was rapping on the streets, but also running into trouble with the law on weapons and drugs charges. He spent nine months in jail in 1991. But came to the attention of Sean Combs shortly afterwards, who signed him to his first record deals. The 1994 debut album Ready to Die established him as the top rapper on the east coast, success that unfortunately spilled into a feud with Tupac Shakur, who signed with west coast label Death Row. When Tupac was shot, he pointed the finger at Combs and Biggie. Later he was murdered, and many assume Biggie’s death in 1997 was a reprisal killing. His second album, Life After Death, was released just a fortnight later.
Plenty of meat there for a biopic, no doubt. But Notorious shoots itself in the foot by making a molehill of the momentous east coast-west coast feud. If you’re skeptical about Biggie’s disclaimers about the Tupac shootings, and buy Nick Broomfield’s theory that the LAPD buried implications that its own officers were involved in Biggie’s killing (see Broomfield’s documentary Biggie And Tupac), well, you won’t find any grist here. The movie betrays minimal curiosity about the trigger-men – and whoever paid them.
Doubtless that restraint is necessary – the Wallace estate is still involved in a civil suit against the LAPD. But that begs the question: why not wait? Of course to accuse Death Row of ordering Biggie’s death would tend to put more suspicion on his role in Tupac’s killing. The fact that Sean Combs and Violetta Wallace (Christopher’s mother) are credited producers is a solid indication that we’re getting the authorized biography, which isn’t the same as the whole truth. Sean (Derek Luke) and Violetta (Angela Bassett) emerge as eminently sensible role models – no surprise there. And you won’t see the incident in which Biggie attacked two autograph seekers in 1996. No surprise there either. Even in the rap world, where bad boy credibility counts for so much, beating up on fans isn’t good PR.
It’s not a complete whitewash, but not exactly Raging Bull either. More like: “Biggie for Beginners”. Much of the movie focuses on Biggie’s relationships with his girlfriends, including singers Faith Evans and Lil Kim (played by Antonique Smith and Naturi Naughton). He emerges as (a) a bit of a charmer and (b) totally irresponsible. According to the film, by 97 he had seen the error of his ways, he was repairing things with the mothers of his children and finally growing up. Which may be true, but feels a little cute.
The screenplay feels stitched together – it even uses the questionable device of a first-person narration from Biggie, “beyond the grave”, as it were – and director George Tillman Jr (Men of Honour) shoots every scene in that irritatingly cut-up MTV style where three set-ups are always better than one.
That said, the movie has one very considerable saving grace in the form of newcomer Jamal Woolard, who is charismatic and a good actor, and carries off the raps with plenty of conviction. The music is, of course, the real thing, and may be enough for fans to overlook the simplifications and evasions. Tupac fans may not be so impressed with Anthony Mackie’s sketchy portrait – or the fact that Biggie has beaten him to big screen immortality. Mind you, if they do make a Tupac movie, chances are it will have more on its mind than this primer to hip hop’s glory days.
Titles related to this article