Biggie Gives Us One More Chance

2009-01-16 (General release)

If you consider yourself a “hip-hop head”, it’s relatively easy to nitpick Notorious, the film that brings the life of hip-hop icon Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (played by Jamal Woolard) to the big screen.

That’s because, as a hip-hop head, you might be coming to the film with a higher set of expectations than a viewer with a casual interest in rap. This sets up immediate comparisons between the information you know and the movie’s account. You’d know that the Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls or, simply, Biggie, grew up in Brooklyn under the watchful eye of his devout and devoted single mother Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett). You’d know that he got involved with “the streets”, dealt drugs, and got into legal trouble. You’d know that Biggie’s rapping ability earned him attention from, first, the neighborhood freestylers and onlookers, and later from hit maker Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (Derek Luke). Nor would it escape you that Biggie’s debut album for Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records, Ready to Die, was quite a success.

If you knew all of that, you’d probably understand the fork-in-the-road moment that occurred when rapper Tupac Shakur was shot in 1994 during a robbery at a recording studio in New York City. Tupac blamed Biggie and Puff Daddy for the incident, and the ensuing tension between Tupac and Biggie sparked the bicoastal hostility known as the East Coast-West Coast beef. No doubt, you’d be aware that Tupac and Biggie were both murdered, Tupac in September of 1996 and Biggie in March of 1997. You might even remember what you were doing when you heard the news that they had been shot. I do.

If you’re a hip-hop head, certain aspects of the movie might feel unconvincing to you. The actors might not look like the people they play or capture enough of their vibe to fully engross you in the portrayal. For instance, I thought Woolard dove heroically into the crucial role of Biggie, offering a mixture of swagger, charm, and occasional anger. Yet, I was never absorbed in the performance. I was constantly aware of the fiction and dramatic license.

Like me, you might have watched the film wondering, “What’s up with Angela Bassett’s Jamaican accent?” It kept shorting out on her, and disappearing at odd times. You might quibble over the concert footage and studio sessions. I was saying things like, “They should’ve included Biggie’s guest verse on Super Cat’s ‘Dolly My Baby’ somewhere in this film.” The movie also reminded me how much I disliked the song “Party & Bullshit”, although I liked how the choreographed fighting during the performance of the song grabbed the attention of Biggie’s initially skeptical concert audience and won them over.

You might be troubled by the movie’s depiction of the feud between Tupac and Biggie, either because you think it’s slanted in Biggie’s favor or because the movie avoids showing Tupac’s actual robbery and shooting. On both accounts, I think the idea was that, since Biggie is telling the majority of the story in his own words, the audience could only see what he actually saw.

Along these lines, you might have also wanted a little more insight into the Tupac and Biggie murders even though the first-person perspective of the storyline limits what our narrator can tell us. Since the actual murder investigations seem to be turning into episodes of Cold Case, maybe someone with a plausible theory will do a JFK-style treatment of the subject. Or, maybe we’ll see something like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which gave us a glimpse of what might’ve happened if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross. Well, on second thought, The Last Temptation didn’t work out so well. But I’ve often wondered what Tupac and Biggie would be doing if they were still alive.

Some commentators think the movie held its protagonist in too high esteem and handled him with kid gloves, largely because Biggie is shown as a young man trying to turn the corner on his past, wanting to move beyond his indiscretions and immature habits, and looking toward a positive future. That could be true. But, still, Notorious shows Biggie selling drugs to a woman he knows is pregnant and explicitly saying he doesn’t care, failing to provide comfort for his mother when she tells him about her breast cancer diagnosis, ignoring his kids, mistreating the Lil Kim character (former 3LW member Naturi Naughton), and cheating on his wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). What do we have to do to take the gloves off? Show him robbing little old ladies so we can say, “Damn, why’d he have to stick her for her paper?” Give him an Ike-Turner-in-What’s Love Got to Do with It persona? Notorious almost went there in a scene between a frustrated Biggie and an exasperated Kim arguing in the studio.

Speaking of nitpicking, someone asked me why the movie wasn’t released the week of March 9, which would be the 12th anniversary of Biggie’s murder. “That Friday is the 13th,” I said. “Doesn’t quite feel right.”

Hip-hop heads might be wondering why the movie didn’t mention other Biggie-related rappers and associates, like female rapper Charli Baltimore. On the other hand, you probably got a kick out of the movie’s nods to rapper Craig Mack.

And if you’re Lil Kim, word on the street is you didn’t like the way the film portrayed Lil Kim.

But even with all of this negative talk, I say never mind the nitpicking. Yes, the movie has its share of shortcomings but, as a “hip-hop movie”, if I can call it that, it’s not so bad. True, Notorious might not join the ranks of Wildstyle, Beat Street, or Krush Groove. Nevertheless, I like Notorious better than, say, John Singleton’s Boyz-N-the Hood, but not as much as I like Hustle & Flow. For me, it’s in the same rating vicinity as Juice, Belly, and 8 Mile. I’d give it a rating of five (and maybe a six, on the rare day that I’m not being such a hater) out of a possible ten.

More than that, I believe there are several important reasons why hip-hop heads should be happy to have Notorious as part of the hip-hop film canon.

You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)

If nothing else, Notorious keeps Biggie’s name alive. Despite Biggie’s status as a hip-hop icon, keeping him visible seems to be a challenge. For some reason, the mythology surrounding the Notorious B.I.G. hasn’t operated the same way that Tupac’s has. Every now and then, there’s still talk of Tupac faking his death and hiding out on a secluded island somewhere, squirreling away new tracks for intermittent release. Supposedly, Tupac is out there right now, hanging out with Elvis while plotting his comeback. That’s not the case for Christopher Wallace. His mythology hasn’t afforded him such a dreamy endgame. Nobody imagines Biggie Smalls pulling the ultimate Machiavellian coup by making the world believe he’s dead while he’s secretly chillin’ in Jamaica.

Besides that, it’s not like he starred in a bunch of movies or left a treasure trove of music behind for fans to access. In fact, compared to friend-turned-rival Tupac Shakur’s movie career, prolific musical output, and steady flow of posthumous material, you can acquire the bulk of Biggie’s work rather quickly, leaving you to hunt for the rest of his songs that are scattered about: his two solo albums (Ready to Die and Life After Death), his posthumous albums (Born Again and Duets: The Final Chapter), and a bunch of guest verses on albums like Puff Daddy’s No Way Out, Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Conspiracy, plus an assortment of cameos on songs by artists like Mary J. Blige and Michael Jackson. For the sentimentalists, there’s Biggie’s collaboration (“Runnin'”) with Tupac and Stretch. If you want to go multimedia with your Biggie collection, Biggie appeared as himself in a funny episode of Martin Lawrence’s Martin sitcom.

In this context, a movie that pays tribute to Biggie’s greatness, while hinting at the realities of his life, is a positive thing. That’s not to say that hip-hop fans should accept any movie about Biggie, no matter how crappy. Of course not. But that’s not what happened here. Yes, it’s by the numbers and formulaic, but it’s a respectable offering overall.

And since I mentioned earlier that I’ve wondered what Tupac and Biggie would be doing now if they had lived, I should probably point out that I have no doubt what some of us would be saying about them. They’d be releasing albums and we’d be talking about how they’ve fallen off lyrically, how hip-hop is a young man’s game that’s ill-suited to a couple of 30-somethings trying to recapture the glory days of Ready to Die and Me Against the World (or whichever album people think is the bomb from Tupac — right now, I’ll go with Strictly For My N.*.G.G.A.Z.). I’m not entirely convinced we’d have a Notorious movie if we also had a living Biggie. Watching Notorious makes me wonder if Biggie, and Tupac for that matter, had any idea how much we’d miss them. We do, and the movie is a reminder that we should celebrate the living as passionately as we celebrate their passing. And don’t be so critical of your celebrities. Stop hatin’ on Beyonce and them.

I Got a Story to Tell

The upside to a biopic that sticks to a well-known chain of events is its potential to inform the uninitiated. Believe it or not, there are people in the world who (gasp!) aren’t into hip-hop and (say it ain’t so!) have never heard of the Notorious B.I.G. If the movie gives the audience even a glimpse of what we experienced back in the ’90s, then it’s doing us all a favor.

I witnessed this while exiting the theater when the movie ended. I heard one audience member say to another, “I didn’t know Tupac and Biggie were close friends.” She said it as though having this additional fact added meaning to her understanding of these men’s lives. What’s going on in our school systems that would deprive our young people of a thorough knowledge of the East Coast-West Coast beef of the ’90s? It’s a shame, isn’t it? Luckily, Notorious‘s account would put people on the right track, at least about the big picture items even if some of the details are fuzzy or arguably slanted.

Although the film is limited to events that are already familiar to hip-hop junkies, that doesn’t mean it can’t entertain or, occasionally, enlighten us. Take, for instance, the part in the film when Biggie first hears “Hit Em Up”, Tupac’s record dissing Biggie, Puffy, Biggie’s crew, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Bad Boy Records in general, Mobb Deep, Chino XL, and Lil Kim. He also claimed he slept with Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans. I’ve always had a perverse curiosity about Biggie’s immediate response to the song. I don’t know if the film got it right or not, but it certainly satisfied my curiosity.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Big Poppa

I have my doubts about some of the Notorious casting choices. In particular, I wasn’t really feeling Luke as Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs or Anthony Mackie as Tupac Shakur. Maybe I’m just unable to be objective. I have to say, however, that one of my favorite parts is when Puff Daddy describes his drive for success to Woolard’s Biggie, “I’m hone-gray [hungry]! You can throw me butt-naked in the jungle and I’ll come out with a chinchilla coat, a leopard hat, and ten pounds heavier…,” I almost laughed myself out of my seat. It’s one of my new favorite movie-related joke lines, right up there with Al Pacino screaming, “Gimme whatcha got!” in Heat. If you watch Making the Band, it absolutely sounds like some of the absurd stuff you hear from Puff Daddy (a/k/a P. Diddy).

On the flipside, I was happier than I thought I’d be about the portrayals of young Christopher Wallace, Lil Kim, and Faith Evans. Young Christopher, played by Biggie’s real life son Christopher Jordan “C.J.” Wallace, has garnered quite a few compliments for his performance. I dig the twist of a real son filling his silver screen’s father’s shoes, and here it’s a miniature version of what Mario Van Peeples did in Baadasssss! when he played his father Melvin. C.J.’s performance was convincing enough.

The Lil Kim storyline was also intriguing, beginning as an innocent flirtation with Biggie on the street, and growing into a complex set of roles that fluctuated alongside the changes in Biggie’s life. They become friends, then lovers, and then the mentor-artist relationship complicates the dynamic as Biggie guides Kim’s rap career. Mostly, he advises her to craft lyrics to please male listeners, to concentrate more on exuding sexuality and less on battle rhymes and being a microphone fiend. At first, everything is cute and cuddly between Biggie and Kim, but when Biggie marries Faith, things take a Ray-like turn, with Kim’s raunchy stage persona being directed at Biggie the same way that Regina King’s Margie Hendricks in Ray aimed her “Hit the Road Jack” background vocals at Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles.

I’m kind of surprised by the reports that the real Lil Kim was unhappy with the way she was portrayed. If she felt like the movie overplayed the negative side of her relationship with Biggie, and gave insufficient attention to the positive side, then okay. But compared to the caricatures of the Puff Daddy and Tupac characters, Kim’s treatment does a respectable job of placing her image and lyrics in an understandable context. The Biggie-Faith relationship, by contrast, has more romance to it, even after Faith catches Biggie cheating. He wiggles his way back into her good graces with his charm. A swell of triumph accompanies the moments when Kim and Faith each decide they’ve had enough of Biggie’s disrespect.

Life After Death

Notorious showcases how the power of Biggie’s oratory continues to move us. One way this happens is through our shared experience with Biggie’s music. Watching the film in the movie theater was like attending a concert. We, the audience members, knew the words to all the songs, and recognized most of the characters as soon as they showed up. I’m fascinated, and more than a little amazed, by the idea that a man in his early 20s could produce such monumental jams that, more than a decade after his death, have an audience of assorted moviegoers reciting his lyrics as proudly as if they were reciting Shakespeare. That’s pretty freaking cool.

Another demonstration of the movie’s fondness for Biggie’s wordplay is through its respect for the power of words and language in general. In his youth, we see Biggie seeking solace in words by writing his rhymes in his composition books. In prison, Biggie sought comfort in the “Word” of the Bible. Later, after sustaining injuries in a car accident, the film shows Biggie recuperating while watching the Richard Pryor standup routine in which Pryor explains how his trip to Africa prompted him to discontinue his use of the N-word.

The N-word discussion is a heavy issue for a movie to just relegate to background noise, but aside from the brief moral and cultural statement it makes, the scene shows Biggie’s, and therefore our, awareness that words are powerful tools. Given the impact of language, it follows that picking the right word for the right context can be an asset, for rappers as well as the rest of us.

Similarly, there’s a scene where a phone conversation between Biggie and Lil Kim ends with Biggie calling Kim a bitch — in front of Biggie’s daughter. Noticeably uncomfortable with his behavior, Biggie gingerly picks up his daughter and tells her never to let a man call her a bitch. That his songs contain the N-word and the B-word doesn’t undermine the idea that he was rethinking his diction any more than the supposedly universal and non-offensive use of the N-word by “black folks” or the use of the B-word by women are automatic justifications for those words.

Here, there’s more to the film’s minor meditations on language than a mere restatement of the oft-cited evils of having a potty mouth. It’s more a matter of purpose and context, as well as the maturity suggested by our struggles to find the right words to successfully express our points of view. In Notorious, Puff Daddy and Biggie say, “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” Being choosy about what we say and how we say it, and being cognizant of how those among us turn all of this into art, could very well be an important place to start.