I actually remember seeing the video for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” and laughing with my brother at this fat nigga rapping over Mtume’s old school classic from a Brooklyn stoop. Then I listened. And I literally let my Ready To Die tape rock til my tape popped in the summer of 1995.
Fifteen minutes into Notorious, the life story of Christopher Wallace aka Notorious B.I.G., I’d already accepted that I would be watching this movie again and again and buying the DVD. While far from perfect storytelling, this movie gave a voice to that period of hip-hop in a way that nothing I’ve seen on-screen has to date. I miss Biggie, I miss Tupac, and I miss Lil’ Kim’s old face. Notorious is about the man, but it’s also about the music and the era, and that makes its power hard to dismiss.
Directed by George Tilman Jr., writer and director of Soul Food, Notorious confirmed most of what we know about Biggie from his lyrics. He was a terror in his public school era. He used to read Word Up! magazine, Salt N’ Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine. He got more butt than ashtrays. He made the change from common thief to Up-Close and Personal with Robin Leach. The only thing Biggie Smalls wasn’t able to speak about from the grave were the messy bits about his relationships with the women in his life, details that are minute when compared to the impact that he made with his music. The biopic itself is a troubled genre that becomes especially tricky when it’s subject isn’t alive to clarify the details and provide full understanding of his motivations or shout out the less interesting players in the story. Beyond that unfortunate need to compress Biggie’s 24 years on earth into two hours, Notorious was factually consistent with what any fan already knows; there was certainly some embellishment but it wasn’t flagrant enough to dismiss the rest of the film.
Notorious was meticulously cast and made great use of marginally familiar actors to keep the focus on the story and the music where it belonged, which successfully keeps Notorious out of TV movie territory. Newcomer Jamal Woolard channeled Biggie’s lumbering girth, shy smile, and nasal speech so well that his performance added a layer of sorrow to the obvious absence of Biggie or anyone like him on today’s rap charts. Anthony Mackie’s physical resemblance to Tupac Shakur made up for the limited exploration of Pac’s real-life complexity and what seemed to be his psychological break, Naturi Naughton skillfully conveyed Lil’ Kim’s Brooklyn-chick-with-no-daddy desperation, and Antonique Smith was excellent, if not a little too innocent, as Faith Evans. Even Puff Daddy’s constant bravado and Harlem shaking was palatable when executed by the exceptionally aesthetically pleasing Derek Luke. Other interesting casting choices included Marc John Jeffries – Isaiah from Losing Isaiah all grown up – as Lil’ Cease, and a frighteningly accurate unknown with no speaking part who was so obviously supposed to be Craig Mack that my entire theater burst into laughter upon seeing his pock-marked face.
Unfortunately, the producers of the film contributed the only drawbacks to Notorious, namely the typically egomaniacal executive producer Sean Combs, who seemed to have made sure that heavy emphasis was placed on his discovery and genius marketing of Big as an artist. The script was heavy with platitudes like “We’re gonna change the world!” and in a series of scenes where Puffy introduces Biggie to the idea of rhyming over Mtume’s “Juicy” he attempts to convince us that he didn’t destroy hip-hop on purpose and was just trying to bring the soul back. Yeah, thanks Puff, but this movie isn’t about you. Big’s mother Voletta Wallace, who was also a producer, seemed to have requested that she be portrayed by Angela Basset in the movie. This role was so miscast that Basset’s weak Jamaican accent was the least of her worries – her characteristic over-acting was to the detriment of Notorious as a whole by constantly reminding me that, after all, it was just a movie.
Of course I saw the movie in a theater full of black folks, one of which brought a crying baby, many of which came in over an hour late, and a handful who couldn’t help but talk to the screen. But of course, that’s us folk. The best part, though, was the music. Everyone was rhyming and singing along to the more than decade-old music and I loved the feeling. Seeing this movie in the right theater can be like a little bit of hip-hop church, or at the very least the Mamma Mia or Rocky Horror Picture Show of the hip-hop generation. Even more heart-warming were a series of gems dropped throughout the film that gave nods to Biggie lyrics, such as Puff and Big discussing their flight itinerary to LA, otherwise known as the opening to “Goin Back To Cali” from Big’s posthumous release Life After Death.
Notorious struck a deep chord with me. Maybe I’m a big softie, but I watched it with a lump in my throat and cried a little at the end. It wasn’t just the 120 minute wait for Biggie’s inevitable death or the realization that he was so young when he died, a perspective that my eighteen years couldn’t process back in 1997. I thought that, perhaps, hearing music from my younger days and the memories it stirred up had me weepy. But frankly, Notorious was an emotional experience for me because I felt tied to something that I didn’t really know I was a part of in the first place – a form of purity in hip-hop that is scarce now. The deaths of Biggie and Tupac turned hip-hop into something a little dangerous and ugly for a while. Before then, there was a steady stream of head-bobbing music at our disposal, and it certainly wasn’t anything you could get killed over. It may be the old-head in me that gets emotional about the good old days, but it’s official – the story of our era is being told. If you love hip-hop and believe that Biggie’s was some of the best music ever made, go see Notorious. You will enjoy it.
Score: Not only was it worth my $9.00, I’m hoping to see this one in the theater again. Instead of posting the trailer, which is running on television constantly, I’m posting this video of Biggie freestyling on Fulton Street at the age of seventeen.