Notorious, about a crack dealer who becomes an iconic rapper who becomes a tragic legend, is the first film George Tillman Jr. has directed since 2000's Men of Honor, about a sharecropper's son who becomes the first black diver in the Navy who becomes the first amputee to return to active duty. Nine years is all that separates the movies—well, that and the hip-hop soundtrack. Both are rigorous and respectable biographies of trailblazers, but Notorious, despite its bigger-than-life subject and habit of dripping sex sweat at the most unexpected moments, is rather square.
That's probably because it's also incomplete. To tell the life of Christopher Wallace — the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, Big Poppa, Chrissy-poo to his mother, Voletta — is to also deal with his death, still an unsolved murder nearly 12 years after he was gunned down while driving away from the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. There are two mysteries, of course: Who killed Biggie and, six months earlier, his friend turned foe Tupac Shakur? Names have been named, allegedly dirty cops called out, newspapers and their writers damned and discredited for posting false information, and lawsuits filed and fed upon as they made further, nastier allegations. But so far, no official suspects; the story ends in a trail of ellipses.
Tillman, perhaps rightly so, has no interest in walking through that minefield. Nick Broomfield, documentarian and self-promoting provocateur, already visited that treacherous territory in his 2002 Biggie and Tupac and only barely survived intact (artistically, at least). Tillman instead revisits the well-chronicled, taking us from near-birth till afterlife — from the picked-on grade-schooler to the career in crack to the conquering hero from the mean streets rendered mythical in death.
There are no spoilers or surprises contained herein. Notorious ends precisely where you expect it to: at the funeral procession through the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, packed in March 1997 with boys in blue sent to keep the peace. New York magazine had it right in its review of Biggie biographer Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood's screenplay last February: "It's basically the screenplay adaptation of Biggie's Wikipedia entry."
Biggie is played by Jamal Woolard, known as rapper Gravy, who does a respectably credible impersonation. It helps that he's a first-time actor; Woolard's not just another famous face playing Hollywood Halloween dress-up, like some of his castmates. He's imposing but also gentle, a bastard but also an angel, and he renders a young Chris Wallace's dreams almost tangible. The anguish commingled with the ambition feels genuine. Especially authentic are Woolard's early scenes with Voletta, a Jamaican immigrant (Angela Bassett) abandoned by her husband. For a while, Notorious is less biopic than an engaging, heartbreaking, small-scale drama about a lost little boy who wants to make his mom proud but keeps breaking her heart.
But Tillman doesn't have time to dwell on the nobody Chris, who's too small-fry for the big-time Biggie story for which the audience has paid its hard-earned. He fast-forwards instead to the glossy, glamorous life — the fuck-the-world photo-ops with Tupac (Anthony Mackie) before things went bad following a shooting at a studio; the change-the-world meetings with Puff Daddy (Derek Luke); the steamy trysts with Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith); and the nasty run-ins with Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold). The movie turns into a parade of bold-faced names — a hip-hop, stunt-cast episode of Entourage, but with a decidedly tragic ending.
Notorious doesn't wash away Biggie's sins — the dealing (to a pregnant woman, even), the screwing around, the prison time. But it absolves him of them too easily by having Biggie narrate from the grave; as every deed's done, it's explained away by a ghost spouting hindsight wisdom. Such is to be expected from the authorized biography — Notorious, after all, was produced by Voletta and executive-produced by Sean Combs, who do just enough to burnish the legend without tarnishing it. Just buy the records; that's the point of this infomercial anyhow.
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