Movie Review: “Notorious” is a powerful look at the life and death of Biggie Smalls
I probably wasn’t the only would-be “Notorious” viewer to pull up to the theater bumping a Notorious B.I.G disc. For most of us, Biggie’s music has been the closest to autobiography we’ve come for the man born Christopher Wallace.
Vivid and multi-dimensional as his tales on wax are, “Notorious” picks up where his music leaves off, filling the void about the life and death of Biggie Smalls.
Note to theatergoers: Don’t be surprised if you hear the people around you reciting the lyrics to Biggie’s songs throughout the movie. Don’t be surprised if you’re one of those people reciting his lyrics while you nod your head to the beat.
The story of Big’s life is, in large part, the story of his music, so it’s no surprise that the viewer is immediately submerged in the sounds of “Hypnotize” and “Going Back to Cali” before the film cuts to Biggie’s murder at age 24 and rewinds back to his childhood. The movie touches on his childhood only briefly, giving us just enough time to witness the bond between young Big (played by his son, Christopher Jordan Wallace) and his Jamaican-born mother, Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett), the ridicule he received from other children for being “fat, black and ugly,” and the affinity for rap music that would eventually lift him out of the streets.
Fast forward several years and we witness Big’s entry into the crack game as a full-time dealer who kept rap as his “chick on the side” but made drugs his wife. He also learns that his then-girlfriend is pregnant.
Eventually, Big’s mother finds out he’s dealing — it turns out the plate of dried-up mashed potatoes under his bed wasn’t really mashed potatoes — and kicks him out, leaving Big to fend for himself on the streets.
Not long after, Big lands in jail and calls on his mother for help, but she tells him that only he can help himself, and in one of the movie’s more poignant scenes, the two pray together over the phone. Big takes to scribbling rhymes in his notebook and searching for a way out of the life he’s fallen into.
Once out of jail, Big meets up with Sean “Puffy” Combs, played by Derek Luke, who has definitely mastered Puffy’s corny dance moves and his world-is-mine swagger. Puff inspires Big to leave the streets behind and chase the dream, but Big is torn as he struggles to support his daughter and realizes that not being able to is “a whole ‘nother kind of jail.”
Following a gun charge in which close friend Damion “D-Roc” Butler (Dennis L.A. White) takes the rap so that Biggie can pursue his rap dreams, Biggie focuses on his rap career and quickly blows up. Relationships with Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), his wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and Tupac (Anthony Mackie) are all explored as Big enters the studio and emerges a star.
The second half of the movie is dedicated to Big’s “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” philosophy, as his professional success and rise to rap superstardom lead to the disintegration of his personal life. Evans leaves him and the notorious feud with Tupac begins, leading to an East vs. West war that would claim the lives of both artists.
In the movie’s final act, when Tupac is murdered and Big prepares to release his second album, “Life After Death,” Biggie begins to reflect on the way he has lived his life and the type of man he wants to become, opting to put family first and consider those he has treated carelessly. Unfortunately, while he is experiencing a personal re-birth, others are plotting his death, and the movie reprises the opening scene as Big is shot and killed.
The film ends with images of Voletta Wallace struggling with the reality of her son’s death, but witnessing the myriad lives he touched and gaining hope.
The strength of the movie lies not just in the power of Big’s story, which has already captivated listeners as much as his lyricism, but in the execution of that story. Newcomer Jamal Wollard does a remarkable job of embodying the massive rapper, both in terms of his striking physical likeness as well as his ability to capture Big’s mannerisms and the nuances of his intelligent, playful and oddly kind persona behind the rough street exterior.
Bassett, per usual, commands the camera during the limited time she has on screen as she serves as the beacon of light in a wayward Big’s life, and Naughton and Smith both turn in strong performances as Lil Kim and Faith Evans respectively. Anthony Mackie as Tupac is less convincing, but the movie doesn’t suffer as a result.
Overall, “Notorious” is a moving achievement not just because of the authenticity the characters bring to people and situations most rap fans will know well, but because it reveals another layer of a rapper who changed the landscape of rap music forever, regardless of where personal “greatest rapper alive” affiliations lie.
The movie, like Big’s albums, was executived produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs, and while it does feel like a tribute to Big, it doesn’t come off as biased. There is no effort here to erase Big’s flaws or paint him in a flattering light; rather, it is the honest portrayal of his strengths as well as his weaknesses that gives the film its power.
By the end of the movie it becomes clear that Big’s death was a loss not just for his circle, or the East Coast, or rap fans, or the black community. In a sense, it was a loss for humanity; here was a young spokesman of the black struggle who had lived to rise up out of the streets and tell his story, only to be claimed by the very violence his talent helped him to escape.
For my review of the “Biggie Smalls: Rap Phenomenon” DVD, click here.