Film Review by Kam Williams
Headline: Warts-and-All Bio-Pic Recounts Rise and Fall of Biggie Smalls
Christopher Wallace (1972-1997) aka Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. was a Brooklyn-born gangsta’ rapper who passed away at just 24 years of age, a casualty of the infamous East Coast-West Coast turf war which first claimed the life of his primary rival Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). Tupac had dissed Biggie by claiming in a song to have slept with his wife, fellow hip-hop star Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). Neither Biggie nor Tupac were exactly altar boys, with both boasting about their street cred and yay-long rap sheets.
But the bloody feud was much bigger than these two icons. On one side, you had L.A. producer Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold) and his stable of artists at Death Row Records; on the other, there were the upstarts from New York who Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) had recently signed to his new label, Bad Boy. And although everybody knew that their crews were packing heat and hated each other, the murders went unsolved, probably because of the “no snitch” mindset adhered to by these thugs as a code of honor.
Unfortunately, Notorious sheds little light on the mystery of who killed Biggie and Tupac. Nonetheless, director George Tillman, Jr. has crafted a very absorbing, cradle to the grave bio-pic which does vividly recount exactly how a latchkey kid being raised by an immigrant single-mom (Angela Bassett) in the slums of Bed-Stuy could have overcome the odds only to be slain at the height of his fame in a seemingly senseless drive-by shooting in Hollywood.
Much credit for the success of the flick must go to Jamal Woolard who makes an impressive screen debut in the title role. The talented rapper-turned-actor achieves no mean feat in fully humanizing a fatally-flawed figure who could’ve easily come off as a one-dimensional monster instead of a charmer. After all, except for the fact that he made it in the music business, there isn’t a lot about Biggie worth emulating.
For instance, he is depicted here as having spent most of his teen years as a cold-hearted drug dealer willing to sell crack to pregnant women by rationalizing “I didn’t get in this game to become no social worker.” The mammoth misogynist also mistreated the females he supposedly cared about, impregnating not only his baby mama, Keisha (Julia Pace Mitchell), but the sexually-insatiable Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith, whom he married after only knowing for nine days.
This riveting cautionary tale, which flies by despite being two-hours in length, revolves around the portly Romeo’s juggling his homegirls and groupies while indulging in the sort of conspicuous consumption celebrated in the typical rap video. Sadly, given the title of his first CD, “Ready to Die,” he must have had had a decent hunch about the fate which awaited him beyond the bling and booty calls.
Neither approving nor judging, Notorious simply presents the gluttonous Biggie in all his materialist glory, allowing the audience to decided what to make of his train wreck of a personal life. Professionally, one can only wonder what potential might have been squandered, since he was cut down in a hail of bullets before the release of his second album.
Grounded by a host of superb performances, especially on the part of Jamal Woolard, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith, Anthony Mackie and Derek Luke, this relentlessly-unapologetic immorality play about a bona fide ghetto gangsta’ is apt to entertain even Joe Six-Pack to the extent Middle America is inclined to buy into the Hip-Hop Generation’s mantra, “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.”
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, ethnic slurs and pervasive profanity.
Running time: 122 minutes
Studio: Fox Searchlight