Thursday, January 15, 2009

FILM REVIEW: Notorious

Jamal "Gravy" Woolard stars as Notorious B.I.G.

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

I grew up just a few short blocks away from Christopher Wallace and his family in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and yet I only knew him as the rest of the world did, as the late Notorious B.I.G. AKA Biggie Smalls. He changed the face of hip-hop with his many gifts—his powerful delivery, an effortless flow, incredible timing, and his ability to paint vivid pictures of street life with his lyrics. Notorious, the new biopic from director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor), chronicles the life of the emcee whose journey was cut short by an assassin’s bullets (a crime that has yet to be solved) at the age of 24 in 1997.

The common thread throughout this film is time as each pivotal chapter of Biggie Smalls’ life is marked with a date. At age 11, he was an honor’s student raised by a Jamaican mother, Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett), who spent most of his spare time memorizing the lyrics of his hip-hop heroes and started writing rhymes about his own life. He became a father at age 17 and provided for his family by drug dealing on street corners. But his passion for hip-hop never died. Once a demo tape landed in the hands of Bad Boy Records’ founder Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), the Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard) would soon be introduced to the entire world.

Ready to Die, Biggie’s first album, brought his life to millions of hip-hop fans, but his success also came with its problems. He juggled his music career with young fatherhood and women (two in particular): fellow Bad Boy artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Kimberly “Lil’ Kim” Jones (Naturi Naughton). But perhaps the most controversial aspect of Biggie’s short life was his friendship, which turned into the bitter “East Coast-West Coast” rivalry with the late Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), whose life was also cut short at the age of 25, almost six months before Biggie’s death.

Bassett, Luke and Naughton all give strong performances, but the most powerful scenes in Notorious come from newcomer Woolard, who captures not only Biggie’s cadence and flow, but also his sense of humor and loyalty (“I got you”) to those he loved. Tillman’s Notorious encapsulates Biggie’s life well enough for those who are either not familiar with Notorious B.I.G. or are too young to remember what had occurred just 12 years ago. But for someone who doesn’t fall into either category, it merely scratches the surface.