Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thug life

Despite some excellent acting and drama, Notorious biopic whitewashes Biggie Small’s gangsta life and death

Posted By on Wed, Jan 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Viewers had to be metal screened before they were allowed to watch the local press screening of Notorious, the new biopic of rap legend Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. The idea was to prevent illegal videotaping and piracy, which was obvious, since no one in the audience looked remotely like a gangsta. The experience and the film we were about to watch, however, made me think of the time when the glorification of that culture dominated much of pop culture. After all, that was the time when metal detectors became de rigueur at clubs and concert halls, when venues like the Hollywood Palladium had to be shut down due to the increased violence at hip-hop shows and people were getting shot even outside the upscale House of Blues in Los Angeles.

Detroit had its own fairly recent tragedy in Proof, of course, so it's refreshing to see that the culture's aforementioned glorification is nearly obsolete in modern rap. There's greater positivity these days and an understanding that much of it was showbiz. (There's a reason why some of the greatest rappers of that time — Ice Cube, Ice-T and Queen Latifah among them — eventually "sold out" and became great actors.) But Barack Obama's president now and that's a great start for the future — one in which folks will hopefully not be insulted by dated and reductive terms like "gangstas" and "hos."

Which is a long-about way of saying that it's nice to see Notorious not glorifying the "thug life" (words that Tupac Shakur, played here by Anthony Mackie, wears somewhere on his personage every single time he is on the screen, just in case the audience misses the point that Tupac was, um, a thug; subtlety's not this film's strong point). Notorious doesn't condemn the lifestyle, either — revealing that it can lead to fame and wealth — although it emphatically lets the audience know it can also get you killed.

But here's the main point to keep in mind about Notorious: One of the film's producers is Wallace's mother, Voletta Wallace (played by the always excellent Angela Bassett); another is his manager. Sean "Puffy" Combs (played by Derek Luke) is its executive producer. So Notorious certainly has its, um, point of view (even if one of the funniest lines is when Voletta asks her son, "What kind of grown-ass man calls himself 'Puffy'?"). Wallace is portrayed as lovable, almost a victim of circumstance — even when he's selling crack to a pregnant addict. We don't, for instance, see his much-reported alleged violent turn against autograph-seeking fans toward the end of his life. The Combs character, meanwhile, displays none of the arrogance or narcissism of which we all know he's capable. In fact, he's portrayed here as a totally stand-up guy. Hell, Biggie's own son, 12-year-old Christopher ("CJ") Wallace Jr., plays the dad he didn't actually know in real life, for god's sakes (and, in a slightly more ghoulish mode, raps with his father on the soundtrack album — shades of Hank Williams Jr.).

Sean Ringgold portrays Suge Knight as a shadowy figure; he's seen as evil, as well he probably should be, but both he and Shakur are pretty one-dimensional in that evil. And because no one has been charged, let alone convicted, in the murders of Wallace and Shakur, it's hard to know who to believe. A filmmaker could make a long movie about the various conspiracies surrounding those deaths alone, a la Oliver Stone's JFK.

That said, the acting is uniformly excellent throughout. Jamal Woolard in the title role is sure to become a star from this, although it's Naturi Naughton as Lil' Kim who steals every scene she's in. (The real Lil' Kim is already badmouthing the film to the press before it's even released, by the way.) Antonique Smith is fine as Faith Evans (although as the mother of Wallace Jr., her character might also be whitewashed here). The fact that most scenes were shot at the actual New York and Los Angeles locations where they happened certainly ups the film's appeal. There's a rapid pace during the movie's first half that gives it real excitement. But by the second half, it begins to drag, even if the movie doesn't feel as long as its two-hour running time.

Hip-hop fans, as well as fans of the artist himself, may find much here to love. But despite its ending — a funeral and folks mourning — nonfans may wonder why we should care about this big guy.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to


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