Starring Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Dennis L.A. White, Aunjanue Ellis, Marc John Jefferies, Anthony Mackie, Julia Pace Mitchell, C. Malik Whitfield and Christopher Jordan Wallace.
Screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Choe Hodari Coker.
Directed by George Tillman, Jr.
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 122 minutes. Rated R.
It is always tragic when someone dies way too young – particularly if that death seems to be rather pointless.
It is particularly sad when that person becomes a cultural martyr for a generation.
The story of the life and early death of the Notorious B.I.G. is a well-known piece of recent history, a nineties musical death of the sociological impact of only Kurt Cobain and his former-friend-turned rival Tupac Shakur. (Not so strangely, all three were killed by guns.)
It is always dangerous trying to tell a story that everybody knows. Notorious pulls it off mostly with style – telling the story sympathetically but not totally whitewashing everything. It is a warts and all portrait that shows a complex man who had artistic talent, though frankly the story does give Biggie a free pass on some of his more reprehensible acts.
It’s actually surprising how many of the standard story arcs of a music bio film are hit upon here – it is just told with a hip hop beat. We have the youthful flirtation with crime, the many women, the drugs, the violence, the scrambling to get noticed, the struggles with stardom, the too-early death.
Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) was not a perfect man by a long shot. He was a bad, disruptive student. He was a former crack dealer (one scene here shows him selling to a pregnant woman, against the advice of another dealer). He was a serial cheater with his girlfriends and wife. He was mostly not there for his children. He allowed a friend to go to jail for a crime he committed.
What he could do was rap. And through that talent he found influence, fame, money, sex, acceptance…
Jamal Woolard, a mostly unknown rapper, does an amazing job in capturing the flow and low-key charm of the title character. Derek Luke also does a wondrous job at capturing the naked ambition of rap impresario Puff Daddy (now P. Diddy).
Less impressive are Angela Bassett, who does her best in the essentially thankless role of Biggie’s mother and Anthony Mackie is chewing a bit of scenery as Biggie’s perpetually stoned rival Tupac Shakur.
Biggie’s real-life young son Christopher Jordan Wallace even plays his dad as a child learning to be a crack dealer – a stunt casting move that is more interesting than it is successful.
Over a decade later the Bad Boy dream is pretty much over – at least two of the people who were stars in this film’s world are now doing reality TV (L’il Kim in Dancing with the Stars and P. Diddy has had several, the most current is I Want to Work for Diddy.). Others have gone to jail (L’il Kim again). Others, like L’il Cease and Faith Evans have just faded away. The East/West feud has also long ago disappeared.
Who would have ever thought that Biggie would become nostalgia?
However, as a piece of 90s reminiscence, Notorious captures its time and place well. You don’t have to be a huge Biggie fan (and honestly, I’m not) to appreciate his story. This biopic is far from perfect, but it’s definitely well worth seeing.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 18, 2009.