, 122 min, 2009
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Writers: Reggie Rock Bythewood (written by) and Cheo Hodari Coker (written by)
Stars: Jamal Woolard, Anthony Mackie, Derek Luke
Notorious is a vibrant, effective portrait of a troubled life that, when push came to shove, tried to take a turn for the better – unfortunately, when it was too late. Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. “Notorious B.I.G.,” “Biggie Smalls,” etc. was a Brooklyn-born kid of good parentage who wanted to be famous and rich.
His mother, Violetta Wallace (Angela Bassett) was a teacher studying for a master’s degree. She was from Jamaica, and tried to raise her son with “good Christian values.” Little did she know that through street drug-deals, a part-time penchant for rapping, and various wrong turns, her son would grow up to be one of the biggest rappers of all time.
Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard), at age 20, was signed with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (Derek Luke), a record producer and rapper who quickly befriended and mentored the struggling youth, who by the time his newfound career broke out, had already been to prison and fathered a child. His hands weren’t idle while behind bars. Like many a troubled musician, he used the experience to create revolutionary music. Like many a troubled musician, his troubles weren’t over.
Over the years, he would forge turbulent relationships with up and coming rappers Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), whom he later married, and Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), whose assassination was later connected (though never conclusively) to Biggie’s own.
At the age of 24, not long after Shakur’s own fatal shooting (rumored by documentarian Nick Broomfield to be the responsibility of off-duty LAPD officers in the film Biggie & Tupac), Biggie himself was gunned down. It was connected to a personal rivalry sparked between Biggie, Tupac and rival record producer Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold).
The film was directed by George Tillman, Jr., one of the most successful of recent African-American directors, who made Soul Food (1997) and Men of Honor (2000) and produced the Barbershop films (and its offshoot Beauty Shop), as well as Roll Bounce (2005) and the recent Nothing Like the Holidays (2008).
He has created a fairly straight-forward and standard musical biopic that finds its strengths in the visual style, the riveting music, the overall scope of its story, and in the star-making performance of Jamal Woolard, a newcomer who plays Biggie as a grown man. He is a dead ringer. His performance carries the day.
The film is not above melodrama and “plot developments” to move itself forward, but it always works. This is, ultimately, a surprisingly moving tribute to a groundbreaking artist gone too fast.
Note: The unrated director’s cut runs 128 minutes.