Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke
George Tillman, Jr.
Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker
20th Century Fox
"Notorious" is a sad film.
Based upon the life of Christopher Wallace, aka "The Notorious B.I.G.", "Notorious" works because it spends more time looking at the man Christopher Wallace rather than his rapping alter ego.
Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard) grew up in Brooklyn, abandoned by his father and raised by his Jamaican mother (Angela Bassett), a teacher and disciplinarian. Despite being more of a teddy bear than a terror, Wallace got into drug dealing for the same reasons many inner city kids turn the same direction...the money was good and maybe, just maybe, it could be his path out of the 'hood.
Wallace soon started rappin' in the same neighborhood and, by the age of 20, was discovered by Sean Combs (Derek Luke).
Four years later, at the age of 24, the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in what many say was a feud between East Coast and West Coast rappers. Many have observed that B.I.G.'s rap was turning a corner and the man himself had become more mature and finally started to grow up.
In all honesty, "Notorious" wasn't made for me.
I was never a huge fan of Notorious B.I.G.'s rap, and tired of the gangsta persona say, well, after the 2nd or 3rd rapper who displayed it. The truth is, and I'm a bit ashamed to admit this, I shrugged when Notorious B.I.G. waas gunned down...not because I didn't care, but because it seemed a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You live the life, you pay the price.
"Notorious" would like me to reconsider this attitude and, rather surprisingly, it succeeds in creating the argument.
At least as directed by George Tillman, Jr., and written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hadari Coker, Christopher Wallace was a young man with potential.
While one can't help but feel like Sean Combs is painted a bit too angelically, especially given the fact that Combs is one of the producers here, "Notorious" paints the image of a young man who was just starting to realize that the gangster persona was a way out of the street rather than a life to actually be lived.
Some rappers have managed to balance their gangsta personas with intelligence and insight, such as Dr. Dre and Eminem. Others, like Tupac Shakur and B.I.G., were victimized by their own successes.
"Notorious" works best because of the performances, most notably Woolard's spot-on take of both Christopher Wallace AND Notorious B.I.G. Woolard, a rapper himself known as Gravy, captures both sides of the rotund rapper and creates a young man that it becomes impossible to not care about.
By the end of "Notorious," I found myself saddened by the loss of this rapper.
The film's other standout performance is Angela Bassett's portrayal of Voletta, Wallace's firm yet loving mother.
Woolard also performs much of the film's music, and fans of Notorious B.I.G. will likely be impressed by how closely he nails B.I.G.'s sound.
Director George Tillman, Jr. ("Men of Honor") has created an entertaining and involving film, though one can't deny it feels sympathetically biased towards the rapper, perhaps owing to the film's producers being Sean Combs and the rapper's own mother.
"Notorious," at times, feels like a fast forward through Biggie's life until one remembers that the rapper himself died at 24. Largely filmed as a flashback of Biggie's life, narrated by Biggie himself from the grave, "Notorious" gives us the Christopher Wallace only diehard fans knew and the Notorious B.I.G. that nearly everyone knew...the friendship turned feud with Tupac (Anthony Mackie), the mentoring of Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton, the image-making with Combs, the marriage with Faith Evans (Antonique Smith and the hardcore run-ins with rap mogul Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold).
The journey through Biggie's rapid ascent to the top of the rap world is awesome to behold, especially for rap and Biggie fans, but the film downward spirals a bit as Tillman winds it down towards a far too tidy resolution.
Despite the film's not quite as satisfying final quarter, "Notorious" is a better than expected, satisfying and involving biopic of a man we never really knew and a rapper who wasn't around nearly long enough.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic