I Make Your Skin Chafe
People look at you like, you’s the user,
Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser.
But they don’t know about your stress-filled day,
Baby on the way, mad bills to pay.
—Biggie Smalls, “Everyday Struggle”
Notorious begins with Biggie’s end. More precisely, it begins with his imagining of his end, something he did frequently—in private and in public. At last feeling “comfortable” with his life, he says he doesn’t fear death. If it’s time, he tells his interviewer, “So be it, I’m ready.”
Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Dennis White, Julia Pace Mitchell
US theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 13 Feb 2009 (General release)
And with that, the movie’s Biggie (Jamal Wollard) emerges from the 1997 Vibe party in Los Angeles that would be his last. As his car pauses in traffic, another rolls up alongside, and a mostly indiscernable thug with a gun takes aim and shoots. With the camera focused on Biggie’s eye—his sunglasses reflecting what may or may not have faced him as he saw the blast—George Tillman Jr.‘s movie doesn’t speculate on what this man looks like, much less whether he was a cop or an ex-con, whether he was hired by Suge Knight or Puffy, or whether he had any particular beef with his target. It doesn’t show blood or hysteria or swarming police cruisers.
Instead, the film stops here and begins again, with the fictionalized Biggie remembering his childhood, the “clean slate” on which he inscribed his world, his hopes and dreams. “Where I grew up,” he says over a street marked “Brooklyn 1983,” “I couldn’t stay clean.” The sequence is familiar, even evoking the start of Tupac: Ressurection, Lauren Lazin’s remarkable documentary on Tupac Shakur (who will show up in Notorious acted by Anthony Mackie, Eminem’s rap nemesis in 8 Mile). The sequence—and the film that follows—looks back on the day when hip-hop was coming into its seeming own, when telling stories was a way to make order from chaos, as well as money and, as Biggie saw it, mo problems.
Of course, as a child (played by Biggie’s son, Christopher Jordan Wallace), he sees none of this. He sees the hustle as a way out of systemic poverty, frustration, and vulnerability. “There were just some things moms couldn’t protect me from,” he says. And so, after its allusive start, this version of Biggie’s story—produced/okayed by Voletta (stoic Angela Bassett) and Puffy (Derek Luke, who struggles mightily to get out from under this clownish part)—turns almost immediately into a too-regular biopic. He shows lyric genius on sidewalks, he sells crack, he’s arrested, and then saved by his boy D-Rock (Dennis L.A. White), who goes to prison so Biggie can fulfill his promise. He has a child with Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), sex with Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), and a marriage with Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). He tries to save Tupac from shooters at the Quad Studios, only to find himself accused of setting him up. He impresses Puffy, adores Voletta, charms and cheats on Faith, figures out how to be a good father just before he’s murdered.
This version, based on co-screenwriter Cheo Hedari Coker’s Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G., draws from Biggie’s self-inventions, his accumulating lyrics and myths, as well as others’ memories. It necessarily shortchanges other versions, say, Tupac’s, concerning their mutual tensions or Tupac’s paranoia, or Lil Kim’s, concerning her own representation. While the Kim plotline is not crucial to Notorious, it and the real Kim’s objections showcase both the film’s limits andits ambitions. And the fact that the “real” Kim, so famously remade and physically fictionalized by surgeries, now hardly looks like herself from back then only underscores the difficulty of distinguishing between facts and fictions in Biggie’s saga. Her complaint and Faith’s sort-of response (“I try my best not to think about it”) suggests that Biggie’s “afterlife” is ongoing.
Like other biopics, this one is pockmarked with episodes already known by fans: Puffy’s discovery of Big at Uptown, Voletta’s struggle with breast cancer, Suge’s (Sean Reinggold) challenge to Puffy at the ‘95 Source Awards (“If you don’t want the producer to be all up in the video…”). That it doesn’t sort out such incidents, or even complicate them much, in order to imagine Biggie’s inner life, makes it serviceable, a recounting of dates and events, but hardly insightful. It spends more time rehearsing clichés of black thug life than it does representing Biggie per se: he’s the occasion for the film’s nostalgia more than its subject.
That’s not to say any single film can or must try to summarize or think through a life, especially one with such rippling effects. The close of Notorious recalls the funeral, shifting explicitly to Voletta’s perspective as she rides in the procession, broken-hearted yet also heartened by the rapturous response to her son’s art, life, and legend, as well as his inglorious death. The film doesn’t look at how she and Afeni Shakur went on, both working against and re-exploiting the industry that exploited their sons, that made them products and also granted them possibilities. Yet another product, the movie is another element in the feedback loop.