A bristling, slickly seductive portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. (below right), the 400-pound Brooklyn rapper whose velvety flow and unparalleled rhyme style left behind a legacy that reached mythic status after he was gunned down in 1997, Notorious works most directly as a biopic, capturing the tremendous charisma and contradictions of this garrulous man-child. But the film also paints on a broad social canvas, skillfully conveying in a doomed downward spiral how the murder of one man became a symbol of the violence plaguing many inner-city American neighborhoods throughout the 1990s.
Born Christopher Wallace in 1972, The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard, above left), grew up a Catholic School honor student, raised in Brooklyn by his single mother Voletta (Angela Bassett), a Jamaican immigrant. Dropping out of school at 17, he turns to the flash and easy cash of drug-dealing, partially in order to help support a pregnant girlfriend. Though he lived less than 25 years, a full recounting of Biggie’s life is left with many masters to serve, even if only including the three turbulent romantic relationships — the mother of his first child, Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), his protégé and lover “Lil’ Kim” Jones (Naturi Naughton, making a solid impression), and eventual wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) — that form the backbone of Notorious.
There’s much more to Biggie’s sprawling story, though: a stint in prison; two children; his mother’s bout with breast cancer; an important professional hook-up with up-and-coming producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (Derek Luke); and a friendship turned feud with fellow rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). The latter quarrel, on wax and in bullets, would pervade their personal and professional lives for almost two years before finally turning deadly for both men.
While the same distilled narrative hurdles that make up most tragic stories about the corrosive nature of entertainment industry fame (drugs, philandering, et al) are present here, director George Tillman, Jr. (Men of Honor) has a grander backdrop in mind for Notorious. The film connects personal ambition to collective circumstance, by way of the sacrifices made for and by its fringe-dwelling main players. Biggie’s big break is only allowed to happen after a pal takes a rap for him on a gun charge, and when he raps, it reflects his own contradictions and tremendous psychological turmoil, yes, but also the dead-end desperation of his friends, and an entire neglected (economically, emotionally, and for a long time culturally) sub-class. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here. (Fox Searchlight, R, 123 minutes)