While driving home from a party with his crew on the morning of March 9th 1997, shots were fired into the Chevy Suburban which contained one Christopher George Latore Wallace and a few hours later the Hip Hop artist knows as the Notorious B.I.G. would be pronounced dead. What a mess it was back in the mid-nineties with the whole East Coast vs. West Coast, Death Row vs. Junior M.A.F.I.A., Tupac vs. Biggie nonsense, a mess I personally thought was created for marketing purposes… until folks started getting murdered. Twelve years after his murder producer Sean Combs and director George Tillman Jr. have revisited, and in some instances reinvented the life and death of Biggie Smalls with the biopic ‘Notorious’. And out of all of the movies, dramas, biographies, comedies or documentaries about Hip Hop that I have seen, this is one beats them all. Easily.
The film begins where the life of the Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard) ends on that night in March of 1997, but as the gun shots sound out, the film movie rewinds over the voice of Christopher Wallace’s narration telling us how he got to this point.
The child of an immigrant Jamaican single mother Jamaica Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett), young Christopher was a smart, chubby child whose mother kept him on a seriously tight leash, but looking around the neighborhood and seeing that others had stuff that he wanted, it was time to loosen that leash, get to hustling and start getting paid.
Years later Wallace is deep in the drug game along with his number one boy D-Roc (Dennis L.A. White). As such he’s dropped out of high school, been kicked out of the house by his mother and has knocked up his girlfriend… but he is paid. Unfortunately selling crack is against the law and Wallace gets hemmed in jail for a bit, but it would seem here is where he refined his already prodigious rapping and rhyming skills. So now out of the clink, a demo tape makes it’s way to the hands of the young and extremely ambitious Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (Derek Luke) and after a hiccup or two and a huge favor turned by his best friend D-Roc, Biggie Smalls, The Notorious B.I.G is born.
The rest of the story of Christopher Wallace is almost a blur as he lives a life of extreme excess in the fastest lane. He transforms his lover and former department store worker Kimberly Denise Jones into the erotic raptress Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), befriends his idol Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), meets and weds songstress Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), sells millions upon millions of albums and to this day is considered by many to the best rapper ever. Of course as long as Rakim is still on vinyl somewhere, I beg to differ. Then, as warned by his now sworn enemy Shakur, the fun ended. His marriage is on the rocks, Lil’ Kim hates him, he isn’t much of a father to his child, he has a shattered leg, Tupac is murdered and every conspiracy theorist on the planet thinks he and Puffy are behind it. But as the film tells us he would come to terms with all of that… and then he went to Los Angeles to promote his second album with movie ending where it began.
By the time Biggie started making his hits my love affair with Hip Hop had pretty much come to an end as I was more concerned with keeping life from kicking my ass with a new wife soon followed by a new baby soon followed by having no job. I mention these facts about my life to illustrate that I have no feelings of nostalgia or warmth about any kind of music coming out at this time because I was busy doing other stuff. A movie about Whodini might bring some warm nostalgia, but not this one, so when I tell you that in my opinion that ‘Notorious’ was damn good, it’s simply because I thought it was damn good.
One the reasons that ‘Notorious’ is so entertaining is because director George Tillman Jr. sure knows how to manipulate an audience, leading me to question why someone with this amount of skill has only directed one other film since his debut as a 28 year old with ‘Soul Food’ back in 1997. As any good biopic should accomplish, Tillman Jr. makes his subject larger than life, he manages to make even the minor things that Christopher Wallace does seem significant, and from the moment the movie starts to the moment it ends, it sizzles with energy.
Great direction means next nothing without some good acting to back it up and not once did I doubt that Jamal Woolard wasn’t the character of Biggie Smalls. Charming, ignorant, naïve, quick to anger and slower to calm, Woolard handles the part with an easy cool flair. Derek Luke was interesting to watch in his portrayal as Sean Combs because even though he was fantastic in the part as an aggressive, driven, no-nonsense businessman desperately trying to protect his brand, I didn’t see Sean Combs when I saw Derek Luke like I saw Biggie Smalls when I looked at Jamal Woolard. I’m guessing this stems from Sean Combs media overload with clothes, perfumes, reality shows, movie appearances and the like so he’s always in our face and our expectations of how Sean Combs should look and act are lettuce fresh in our minds. I sure am glad he didn’t play himself though because Derek Luke is a much better actor. All of the performance were very good, particularly Naturi Naughton’s ‘interpretation’ of Lil’ Kim which was… hell I can’t think of a word to describe it, but it sure was fun to watch.
How accurate ‘Notorious’ is in it’s presentation of the life of Christopher Wallace I couldn’t tell you, especially since a couple of the driving forces behind this films creation were one of his best friends in Sean Combs and the man’s mother, so take that for what you will. Regardless, this one fine musical biography that ranks right up there with ‘Ray’ and ‘Walk the Line’ in making its main subject larger than life.