In music terms, Brooklyn’s Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace was a hip-hop superstar to rival Oakland’s Tupac Shakur. In movie terms, however, 2Pac has long overshadowed B.I.G. with the films he made as an actor and the documentaries that followed in the wake of his similarly-unsolved murder. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor
) aims to correct that imbalance with Notorious
, the authorised biography of the larger-than-life New York rapper. Produced by his mother, Voletta Wallace (played by Angela Bassett), and record producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), Tillman presents Biggie as a bright child who grew up to be a drug dealer before finding his true calling on stage, only to be cut down in the prime of life. In his feature-film debut, Jamal "Gravy" Woolard captures Biggie's complexity--the loyalty to his crew, the disloyalty to his ladies (including Lil' Kim and Faith Evans)--but struggles to make him as sympathetic as the figure that emerges in Nick Broomfield's Biggie & Tupac
, simply because the script relies too heavily on the usual musical-bio clichés. Fortunately, several bright spots elevate the scenario, such as Anthony Mackie as Pac, Christopher Wallace Jr. as young Biggie, and Woolard's rapping, which segues seamlessly into B.I.G.'s (the soundtrack mixes original tracks with remakes). If Notorious
isn't a failure, it isn't a triumph either, but Tillman has crafted it with love and respect, and only a stone could remain unmoved by the real-life funeral footage at the end. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
The dramatic retelling of the life, remarkable rise, and violent fall of rapper Christopher Wallace (aka the Notorious B.I.G.), Notorious
plays like A Star Is Born
set to a rattling gangsta snare. With crisp direction by George Tillman Jr., producer of the Barbershop
series, the film is briskly paced and strikes a worthy balance between sensationalized celebrity biopic and behind-the-scenes drama. Angela Bassett anchors the latter with a nuanced performance as Voletta, Wallace’s long-suffering single mother who attempts to shelter him from the mean streets of Bed-Stuy.
With deep involvement by those who knew him best--the real Voletta Wallace and Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs (played dynamically by Derek Luke) co-produced--the film nonetheless unflinchingly portrays Biggie’s troubled history as a teenage crack dealer, his chronic infidelity and poor fathering skills, and his own role in stoking the ludicrous coastal rivalry that claimed both his and Tupac Shakur’s lives. Notorious
delivers an impactful tribute to its subject's genius--revealing to fans and neophytes alike the microphone skills, narrative chops, and fresh vision that made Wallace one of hip-hop’s greatest all-time MCs. Largely, this is due to the ace performance by Jamal Woolard, an amateur rapper who packed on 50 pounds to play the hulking gangsta.