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REVIEW: NOTORIOUS

 

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

 

Friday, May 15, 2009.

 

'It was all a dream' (‘Juicy’ ‘Ready to Die’) and for Christopher ‘The Notorious B.I.G’ Wallace his mid 1990s heyday certainly was.  The glitzy, blinging symbols of the American consumer society were his for the taking ('money, clothes and hos’ all a nigga knows' 'Big Poppa' - Ready To Die'). But whilst this illusory fantasy is in reality a myth for many Black people, the Brooklyn native’s death was the stuff of real nightmares.  

 

There's so much to tell in the life story of ‘The Notorious B.I.G. A legend in hip-hop culture. Platinum selling albums. Worldwide fame and wealth as one of the finest rappers ever. Triumph, drama and tragedy in equal measure. Dead at 24 years old. Like so many young Black men, gunned down in a drive-by shooting; the result of pointless internecine warfare. 

 

’There’s no surprise then that Biggie Smalls gets a big-budget biopic. With the recent trend for such films (‘8 Mile’ – Marshall ‘Eminem’ Mathers; ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ – Curtis ‘Fifty Cent’ Jackson; Kennedy, Malcolm X, ‘Ray’ on the life of Ray Charles, ‘Walk The Line’ (Johnny Cash) and Dreamgirls (loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes) there is a formula to be followed. Director George Tillman Jr does so with stylistic panache. 

 

Check the visually stunning daytime/night-time cityscape shots of New York City. Surely, the film is technically adept; the cinematography innovative, sharp and easy to watch.  

 

But Sean Combs and the late rapper’s Mother Voletta Wallace's production seem to be missing something – the spark, energy and sheer force of personality of the Notorious B.I.G.  

 

Christopher Wallace aka ‘Biggie Smalls’ died in 1997 - a mere 12 years ago. His music remains as popular as ever, still fresh in people’s minds. But it’s a tough story to tell so soon after the events. Why the unsolved murder took place, and on whose orders, remain a mystery. But there's no doubt about his assassination - in this film suspense is not an option.  

 

So Tillman Jr. ‘s production is left with little choice but to choose the narrated, retrospective, flashback style, beginning and ending with B.I.G’s death. 

  

The music scenes stand out - as they should.  Biggie had an intangible quality – sheer force of personality, swagger and charisma. His technique - imaginative, and humorously creative, built around cinematic narratives. The fusion of lyrics, style, versatility and charisma - a yet to be matched blueprint.  A voice deep, clear, resonant, powerful, articulate.

 

His subjects - dreams of ghetto fabulousness; sometimes frightening and violent, sometimes hilarious - with more suspense, drama and intricate plot lines in a few rapped verses than many novels. His novelistic rap style  - with plot, intriguing characters, tension, mystery and suspense recalls a Scorsese or Tarantino film  - as he completely occupies the narrative role  - a study of concentration,  passion and eloquence. 

 

It’s no surprise then that these scenes are the film’s strongest.  

Biggie defeating a rival in a lyrical street battle on the streets of Brooklyn; dropping lyrics in a basement recording session; in the studio and on stage. Also portrayed in the film, but less well known is Big Poppa’s early underground hit Party and Bullshit (from the soundtrack to 90s flick ‘Who’s The Man’) which takes it’s title and chorus from a verse in spoken word pioneers The Last Poets ‘When the Revolution Comes’. Interestingly Biggie transforms this critique of materialism and escapism into a feel good club banger.   

 

Here is why Biggie Smalls - a master storyteller with effortless flow, delivering melancholic lyrics often contrasted with joyous party-bangers and uplifting inspirational pieces of hope and optimism - remains a rap legend. 

In powerful portrayals of the rapper's skills and charisma newcomer Jamal Woolard captures Biggie Smalls’ mannerisms perfectly - his voice and stage persona eerily portrayed. 

 

The precise imagery and nods to the rapper’s legend are all there - so so accurate. One scene showing a young Biggie in a 'red and black lumberjack, with the hat to match’ (Juicy’, Ready To Die) points to the attention to detail given to this project.  There are many others. 

 

All of the main chapters in the Brooklyn native’s life - already legendary, are checked off. Biggie's relationship with his mother (played by a typecast Angella Bassett); the influence of the emerging 1980s d hip hop movement; his sharp intelligence and charisma. These episodes of the B.I.Gs story are dramatised adequately. So too is a complicated love life - with the Mother of his first child; a whirlwind romance and marriage to Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and infidelity with Kim ‘Lil' Kim’ Jones  (Naturi Naughton).   

 

Nor do we learn anything new about Wallace’s collaboration with Sean 'Puffy' Combs (Derek Luke) or the dramatic relationship with Tupac Shakur (an intense and manic Anthony Mackie). With pedestrian dialogue the screenplay - by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Biggie’s biographer Cheo Hodari Coker - is flabby, typified by Puffy’s lines, little more than lifestyle coach soundbites.  

 

By the drama’s conclusion, Biggies’ reconciliation with his Mother and the women in his life shows a man at ease with himself and ready for advance. Prior to that, an unflattering portrait emerges of a conflicted and sometimes violent and ruthless operator.  

But a tepid script means this isn’t a careful psychological exploration of a complex character, or the social and cultural landscape that moulded him.  It’s an opportunity missed.   

 

The move into drug dealing, crime and finally prison are glossed over. In the same way that Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington, de-contextualised the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and depoliticised US intervention in South East Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos; and Afghanistan currently), Tillman Jr.’s film doesn’t look for causality between cocaine production and importation and the historic and ongoing US intervention in Central America (PLAN Columbia, El Salvador, Nicaragua). The chance to examine the drug economy and crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and their enduring impact on the Black community is not taken up.   
 
Instead, we get a moving tribute to a loved one. But that makes for a bland drama. In any event the man’s recorded works contain more effective and evocative autobiographical sketches (check 'Things Done Changed', 'Everyday Struggles', ‘Respect’, and ‘Juicy’). 

 

It's only when we get to the essence of story – the tragic, and ultimately deadly, East Coast/West Coast beef - that the film moves beyond big budget soap opera.  Unfortunately no new questions are asked, so we are served familiar explanations.  

 

For those who have studied the period, parallels exist with the methods used by US intelligence agencies in the 1960s against the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement. This well documented central government organised campaign (COINTELPRO) sought to disrupt and destroy the Black Panther Party by using methods seen in the East Coast/West Coast rivalry -  gossip and rumours, the creation of tension and hype, violent provocations and setting the scene for the entrapment of vulnerable individuals.   

 

Of course, musical rivalries have existed before, and developed since (LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee, Nas and JayZ, KRS-One and everyone). But most of these have stayed on wax (or CD) and none have received the sinister media manipulation or equally awful consequences. The result – the martyrdom of two of Hip-hops finest young artistes, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls,  and rap now a commercialised, commodified, empty shell. 

 

For an alternative view of the death of Biggie (and Tupac) - and a braver one - Nick Broomfield’s feature length documentary ‘Tupac and Biggie’ uncovers the analysis omitted from this production.

 

It’s little known that Puffy, Biggie and Tupac were all under FBI surveillance (wiretaps and secret observation up to the minutes before Wallace’s assassination). But in Tillman Jrs film such an observation is absent, making for a dot-to-dot production lacking real depth.  

 

Having said that, with reportedly $42 million taken worldwide since the film’s January release, the Box Office proves the film to be a massive hit. 

 

For old-schoolers and hard-core Biggie fans - probably the B.I.G man's music (and videos) can be the only authentic and lasting monument to rap’s golden moment.   

 

Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

 

Notorious

123 minutes

Certificate 15 

‘Notorious Official’ Soundtrack

Various Artists

Bad Boy Records

13 January 2009 [import]

 

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