In hindsight, the thought that a film could have ever done justice to Christopher George Latore Wallace, the Brooklyn-born rapper who went by the names Biggie Smalls and The Notorious B.I.G. until his untimely, unsolved murder in March 1997 at the age of 24, was a foolish if exceedingly hopeful fantasy. Would any director possibly be as good at balancing blunt criticism -- of masculinity, poverty, the music industry, the black experience in America and, perhaps most importantly, himself -- and have as big an ego as the late MC? Maybe Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) but his project never came to pass.
What we are presented instead is Notorious, a dutifully celebratory, profoundly inept retelling of the rise of Wallace from fatherless coke slinger on the corner of Fulton and St. James to the still-praised Shakespeare of hip-hop and best friend to that other don of hip-hop culture, Sean "Puffy" Combs. The film, which is directed by Soul Food helmer George Tillman Jr.
, opens on the infamous shooting of Wallace outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA. As the first bullet is fired, the screen pauses and the voice of the deceased rapper kicks in and rewinds us back to the beginning of the tale with a 12-year-old Wallace, played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, the son of Wallace and R&B singer Faith Evans, sitting outside Queen of All Saints Middle School in Bed-Stuy, waiting for his mother Voletta (Angela Bassett
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With the obligatory seduction of the drug trade and denouncing of a bastard father scenes expedited, we are introduced to the late-teen Biggie (newcomer Jamal "Gravy" Woolard): father-to-be, rising star in the crack game, and a lyricist of uncanny braggadocio. After a stint in jail for slinging rock, Wallace meets a young Sean Combs (Derek Luke
), who delivers an ultimatum in exchange for repping him: Give up the crack game or give up the rap game. Despite several setbacks (another arrest, Puffy getting fired from his first label), Combs eventually founds Bad Boy Records and puts out Biggie's debut record, Ready to Die, which immediately legitimizes commercially East Coast rap.
Overnight, Biggie becomes an icon, thanks to a restless touring schedule and the success of his single "Juicy." (The creation of the single, from Puffy's "Juicy Fruit" sample to Wallace's strident flow, is one of the film's few moments of sincerity.) Soon enough, he finds himself in love with two women, the female rapper Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Evans (Antonique Smith
) and winds up in a heated imbroglio with one-time friend Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie
), his foil as the figurehead of West Coast hip-hop.
The resulting West Coast/East Coast feud, thrown into a tailspin by the 1996 murder of Shakur and widely seen as the central factor in Wallace's own shooting, is handled with only a passing interest. The 2002 documentary Biggie and Tupac delved deep into the very same fiasco that Notorious handles with kid gloves. That film, directed by Battle for Haditha director Nick Broomfield, was a journalistic inquiry into the seismic shifts in masculinity and ego that hip-hop is built on, while also a document of the allegiance both artists had to the story of a poverty-stricken black America. Among many other things, one has to wonder why Notorious then paints a man so devoted to the grit and grime of the streets in such a flashy, hurried aesthetic.
Notorious offers no fascination, no questions, and little insight into the machismo-heavy world that claimed Shakur, Wallace, and countless other lost young men. Written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, the script talks a good game about Wallace's influence on the rap world and his hometown, but rarely do we see how his work permeated. The bumbling nature of the dialogue propels Tillman's flaccid handling of legends like Kim and Evans into flat-out condescension. But the film's uncritical chauvinism and wooden mimicry aside, what fatally hinders Notorious is its inability to cull the critical insight that Biggie demanded of himself. The result ignores what Biggie was, a great artist who believed in the power of storytelling, and transforms him, like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and Ray Charles in Ray, into the flawed saint that he never was and, more importantly, never wanted to be.