Dir: George Tillman Jr.
As a middle-class white kid from the south east of England it’s probably odd that the first music that ever really connected with me, at the age of fourteen, was gangsta rap. From NWA, to Ice T, to the Wu Tang Clan and the subject of this movie; Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a The Notorious BIG, I listened to them all. I remember being played BIG’s debut album, the rather magnificent, and sadly prophetically titled, Ready to Die by a friend, and being amazed by his lyrical talents. It’s a shame that he didn’t get a better biopic.
No biopic can encompass a person’s whole life, but Notorious does represent a shocking whitewashing of Christopher Wallace’s (Jamal Woolard) short and, his music aside, not especially admirable, life. It’s easy to see why this is the case, listed among the producers are Wallace’s mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) and his producer and friend Sean ‘whatever silly alias he’s going by this week’ Combs (played, as a man so close to angelic it’s a shock he doesn’t have wings, by Derek Luke), who both have significant financial interest, and in Combs case possible legal interest, in putting the best face on aspects of Wallace’s life. While Notorious does acknowledge that Wallace was a drug dealer, and a poor husband and father it also makes sure to offer excuses for all these things, and refuses to show any of them as having real ramifications. In the most nauseating moment in the film a woman who we had previously seen Wallace sell crack while she was pregnant, literally skipping along the road with her impossibly cute son, as if to say ‘look, she got clean, so it doesn’t matter what he did in the past’.
This hagiographic tone also means that much of the movie’s screenplay clunks horribly, with some of the most contrived and unnatural dialogue I’ve heard for some time such as, from Combs: “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves”. It also means that one of the most important events of the story, the east coast-west coast rap feud, which led to the deaths of Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) and Biggie himself in drive by shootings, is almost swept under the carpet. The events of this ‘war’ are still the subject of much debate, and there is still controversy over what Combs and Wallace’s role may have been in Shakur’s death, and the film never acknowledges or engages with this question.
Notorious does occasionally get it right. Most notably with the casting of Jamal Woolard as Wallace, the debuting actor added 50 pounds to an already expansive frame for the role, but it’s not his weight that impresses as much as it is his charisma. Despite how awful a person Wallace clearly was Woolard brings a humour, an affability, that makes you believe why people would have wanted to help him. The big hurdle, the thing that Biggie did best, was always going to be the music, but it’s in these sequences that Woolard’s performance really explodes into life. He’s a strong rapper, and bears a great vocal resemblance to BIG. In the music sequences the film takes off, and you become a member of Biggie’s crowd, transported into the club.
There’s another strong and charismatic performance from Naturi Naughton, whose turn as ‘Lil Kim has angered the rapper herself, but she’s the only person who ever threatens to take attention off Woolard, particularly in her own concert scene. Derek Luke works hard as Sean ‘I’m not going to call him by his nickname’ Combs, but he’s undone by both the fact that he looks so little like Combs that it undermines his work, and that Combs is portrayed in a fashion even more whitewashed than Wallace. Anthony Mackie has perhaps the hardest job in the film, playing Tupac Shakur, whose own searing charisma was an asset to several movies, in this respect Mackie comes up sorely lacking and the performance feels like an enthusiastic imitation done as a party piece. Angela Basset has a hopelessly cliché role as Voletta Wallace, but plays it well, and Wallace’s son with Faith Evans, Christopher Jordan Wallace, does a fine job playing his late father as a child.
George Tillman, Jr hasn’t directed since Men of Honour nine years ago, and it seems to show, because this poorly paced and irritatingly stylised film feels like the work of a rusty craftsman. It’s a shame Notorious isn’t better, because BIG deserves a good movie, but there were other interests at work here.