Not long after The Notorious B.I.G. (aka Christopher Wallace) was killed in 1997, a grieving Voletta Wallace made this candid admission about her late son’s hip-hop records: “He used filthy language because the stories he was telling were filthy.” But Notorious, a new biopic about the late rapper, does not share the ambivalence of a brokenhearted mother who was also a scolding schoolteacher. Notorious is merely pop product. Repackaging the “Biggie Smalls” life story as a hip-hop fable, it exploits ribald urban mythology as the dominant social narrative of African-American life.
Notorious not only dramatizes events in Biggie’s short career from schoolyard nerd to desperately cool drug dealer and from amateur rhyme slinger to hip-hop star; it misrepresents his personal success as a racial victory. Beneath Biggie’s baby walrus demeanor, his sincerity and wit were enough to win
him street cred as a lyricist, father two kids and gain the loyalty of at least three females (his first baby mama, his equally ambitious lover, Lil’ Kim and his wife Faith Evans). In the midst of glittering record-label high-life, sponsored by entrepreneur Puffy (aka Sean Combs), Biggie attended a celebratory VIBE magazine party and was murdered before he turned 25 in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting.
As filmed, this showbiz tragedy is not cautionary but glamorous. Following the style of typical Hollywood biopics, Notorious dangerously suggests that Biggie’s drugs-to-bitches (not rags-to-riches) saga is the archetype of young black male experience. Bolstered by a great pop music soundtrack (especially the vibrating arpeggios of “Hypnotized”), the pathology in Biggie’s life passes for authenticity—the buzzword that has suckered Black Studies academics from Henry Louis Gates to Tricia Rose and many naive hip-hop fans, too. Notorious is superficially watchable/enjoyable. But we need to ask: Why?
Hollywood has often replaced authenticity with excitation and Notorious is smooth, violent, hit-laced and sex-laden enough to satisfy people who simply want to enjoy the Biggie legend. But note the thin line between legend and epitaph. The fact of Biggie’s ugly demise is ignored in favor of recounting his fantastic rise from obscurity to fame. Director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker employ typical rock movie formula on semi-hardcore material. Their attitude is less conscientious than was New Jack City: Drug-selling and rhyme-peddling are casually presented as equivalent means of survival. It’s shocking to hear young Biggie insist that he doesn’t mind selling crack to a pregnant junkie, yet the film marches on. Good casting presents believable types: Jamal Woolard is dark and massive like the real Wallace; his thick physicality always seems innocent, not reduced to a stolid lump like Clint Eastwood’s version of Charlie Parker in Bird. Antonique Smith embodies Faith Evans’ light-skinned concupiscence, Naturi Naughton exhibits Lil’ Kim’s chocolate brazenness and Derek Luke captures Puff Daddy’s wily, ruthless indifference to everything but money. (He tells Biggie: “I just signed at $42 million contract with Clive Davis, and you get $5 million!”) But simply putting black figures into the old-style ghetto advancement romance (as established in Rhapsody in Blue, Humoresque, Golden Boy) ignores the malevolence of recent crack-era treachery and Clinton-era greed. Pretending that only success matters means Notorious is essentially—unacceptably—dishonest.
Falsehood starts with the deracinated immigrant saga of Biggie’s Jamaican-born mother Voletta (Angela Bassett doing the Angela Bassett routine) raising a child in Brooklyn’s West Indie enclave. This milieu’s as superficial as the ethnic fairytale of Curtis Hanson’s Eminem movie 8 Mile and with less West Indian aura than last year’s dance film How She Move. Biggie’s background lacks New York flavor. Avoiding any sense of ethnic or social history, the film merely accepts the depressed conditions as they are—the same failing of the worst commercialized hip-hop. Confusing the Reagan generation’s materialism with the birth of black youth consciousness is commensurate with Biggie’s enormous aspirations, yet this fast-paced, vividly performed movie cheats the complexity of that ambition with rhythmic, pulsating capitalist clichés.
Notorious confirms new black pop legends—different from the venerated legends that Darnell Martin examined in the shrewd, remarkable Cadillac Records. There’s no equivalent to the moment Muddy Waters advised Little Walter, “We don’t live the blues, we sing it.” There’s only Puffy vowing, “I’m gonna be the last man standing!”
Tillman, Bythewood and Coker employ the delusion that hip-hop “realness” (sex, drugs and violence) is a virtue. In the scenes where a sex- and weed-sated Biggie freestyles, “It was all a dream,” and unleashes his fat-boy’s mack-daddy fantasies, it’s easy to believe only aspiration matters. Fact is, Biggie rhymed unsettling expressions of cruel desperation (as in the songs “Warning” and “Who Shot Ya,” his infamous retort to Tupac), but in this film he remains incapable of moral reasoning.
Biggie’s debut album, Ready to Die, didn’t confess hip-hop nihilism so much as boast cold-bloodedness (related to rap’s satirical horror-core movement). That title means “Fearless” and each track, using cinematic segues, is a dazzling burst of mean creativity: Biggie exaggerates thuggishness the way only a dreamer would; the stick-up tale “Gimme the Loot” is both hilarious and hair-raising. But Notorious never examines this moral sea-change—the very filth Voletta Wallace lamented. It lacks the moral intelligence that Charles Stone III brought to Paid In Full.
“My frustration turned into rhymes” Biggie claims, but when he acts tough, he’s as self-destructive as Lil’ Kim turning her own frustrations into sexploitation, grabbing her crotch and spitting whorish lyrics in the Junior Mafia hit “Get Money.” The filmmakers drive-by the horrible irony that Black American culture reached its lowest, self-demeaning point through hip-hop celebrity.
Notorious endorses the ghetto fallacy: “If you make it, we all make it.” This materialist notion replaces Up From Slavery, The Souls of Black Folks, Black Boy, Invisible Man, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Sounder, Killer of Sheep and, most recently, Akeelah and the Bee. The final image of a funeral procession that celebrates success is appalling. Understand Notorious as an epitaph for an entire culture.
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Running Time: Approx. 120 min.
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