Notorious is a film about dichotomies. Had another musical biopic not already snagged the title, this movie about Notorious B.I.G. could have been called Walk the Line. In an early scene little Christopher Wallace, destined to become the famous rapper, is a grade schooler, (Christopher Jordan Wallace, Biggie’s real-life son) who walks down a Brooklyn sidewalk with his mother at his side sweetly praising him for his good grade on a class assignment. Down the street on a bike rides a standard neighborhood hoodlum, and when he spies the ten-year-old, he makes a nasty aggressive gesture. So it is established immediately: two worlds, the one of the streets and the straights. The former is a rough universe of rage, random yet predictable, incomprehensible yet justifiable. On the other side of the line, the straights include his mother Voletta Wallace (Angela Basset), a teacher who sent him to Catholic elementary school and raised him to follow the straight and narrow; the cops who arrest him for not following the straight and narrow; and the society that increasingly believes there is no wrong way to make money.
By adolescence the rotund, drug-dealing Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard), as he is called then, has cast his allegiance mostly to the streets. Sure, they are brutal, but he thinks he has mastered them. As anyone who knows what happened in March, 1997 can attest to, how tragically wrong he turned out to be.
But four years before the music died, he rose from street rapper and criminal to one of the most successful entertainers in hip-hop with the name that said it allNotorious B.I.G. Flashy jewels, imposing cars, expensive clothes become mandatory. He marries R&B star Faith Evans, seemingly dropping former flame Lil' Kim. And he had little time for a child he fathered as a teen.
Not surprisingly, success does not solve his core problems. Biggie has grown into a man rageful yet needful who, in relationships, constantly hammers the thin line between love and hate. His ties with the many women in his domain are continually strained to the breaking point. He wields both charm and violence to keep females under control.
His relationships with men, particularly mentor Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) and to Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) full of blustery camaraderie with blasts of in-club curse-word-trimmed machismo-cloaked affection. Yet from that quarter comes the most dangerous threat when, after being attacked and robbed, Shakur claims Biggie orchestrated the incident.
An array of human vices and virtues are on display in the movieloyalty, love, ambition, betrayal, promiscuity, and cruelty. Director George Tillman (Soul Food) and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker have shaped a story that empathizes but never glorifies. It is at once heartening and slightly disappointing that Notorious forfeits those rousing “me too” moments of universality seen in anti-hero flicks like Bonnie and Clyde and Hustle and Flow. That story’s sad, desperate characters gather around and sing a song they hope will hit the charts and dig them out their dregs, and for an electric flash the audience can mentally unite with a pimp and his prostitutes under the banner of “everybody has a dream.”
It is socially risky business for a film about the doomed to push people to identify with its subjects. Notorious does not do that. It is a movie for hip-hop fans and critics alike. Fans will find the music they love. Opponents may find more insight and possibly more ammunition. Notorious is at moments hotly raw and potentially appalling. Jamal Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper himself, is perfect in countenance and appearance and captures the emotionally chaotic spirit of the man he plays.
Naturi Naughton, an alum of Broadway where she played sweet Little Inez in Hairspray gives her all in illuminating Lil’ Kim, who like all gangsta rappers, wake up one day and understand the degradation they have been enduring for free can be practiced for profit. The young actress’s performance is nuanced enough to show the horrendous damage behind the daring allure.
But the message in Notorious is more about taking responsibility than preventing damage. And toward the end Biggie embraces fatherhood. “Can’t change the world if we can’t change ourselves,” he says.
And another provocative sentence from another movie might be applied to this film, too. In The Reader, Kate Winslet, an inexcusable victim of circumstance on trial for murders at a concentration camp, says to the judge, “What would you have done?”
Notorious encouraged me to set aside my aversion to music that I find misogynistic and slanderously racist and ask a similar question of myself. Had I come up in Christopher Wallace’s unrelentingly brutal world, how would I have done? Likely not nearly as well as he did.