Review: Notorious (The Movie)

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Now here’s a surprise; ‘Notorious’ the new biographical picture (biopic) regarding the life and premature death of legendary Brooklynite MC Biggie Smalls (later called Notorious B.I.G.) is not the flimsy cheese string of a film any of the early reports have suggested it is.

Director George Tillman, JR. has masterfully constructed two solid hours of cinematic truth akin to investigative journalism. There’s even a scene, which in grave detail explains how and why the rapper had zero police protection while promoting his album in LA and thus clarifies the forces truly at fault for his shooting and eventual death that fateful night in March 1997.

As you might have guessed by now I’m just kidding.

And anyone who was expecting this kind of material from the same man who brought us ‘Soul Food’ and produced by Sean ‘P Diddy’ Coombs, along with Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace, needs to stop smoking illegal substances immediately.

So just to confirm: ‘Notorious’ is not a cheese string of a film, however, since we’re making comparisons, it is, in a sense, the filmic equivalent of a greatest hits record, swiftly skipping tracks (or moments in the artists life) and at times, unfortunately, comes across as eager to skip to the end credits.

In fact the opening scene shows us a flashing montage, which traces the films events backward as if the memory of the late rapper is going to be served to us through a paparazzi photographer’s lens. Despite the hasty opening this is not what follows. Instead the remainder is shaped and catered to Ms Wallace’s producer credit and formulated as if a reconciliation between the fervent mother and her fallen son.

The closing minutes of the film contain a short monologue in which Ms Wallace (played by Angela Bassett) says that before her son died he “became a man and was ready to live.” Whether or not this is true will, of course, remain unknowable to most of us.

The point is that ‘Notorious’ is not a film concerned with documentary fact. Its chief attempt is to be a medium for Ms Wallace’s cautionary message to Hip Hop fans and to be a meditation on her forgiveness.

This might explain how Basset as Ms Wallace and rapper Jamal ‘Gravy’ Woolard’s Biggie excite such emotional exuberance in their scenes together. Or why the film so effortlessly shuns the details regarding the infamous East Coast, West Coast conflict in 1996.

The lone representative of the California rap enterprise Death Row is here Tupac Shakur (played by Anthony Mackie) who the film claims incited the ‘beef’ by accusing Biggie of being involved in his robbery and shooting. ‘Notorious’ does little to shed light on these events and Mackie’s performance as the murdered poet/actor/rap star seems stifled by the director’s lack of concern.

On the other hand, Woolard plays Biggie Smalls with the kind of emotional ambivalence, which confirms The Source magazine’s assertion that the rapper was neither “a saint or a sinner, hero or villain; simply a man whose journey wasn’t complete.”

Biggie seems to bare a dark and confused panoply of characteristics. He’s charming, disorganised, loving, neglectful, insecure, mischievous and seems to have a tongue programmed to utter endless profanities for no apparent reason. Woolard captures all of this with an honest and genuine concern for his case study.

The performances of the supporting cast are just as robust and energetic. Naturi Naughten’s confident take on love interest Lil’ Kim ranged against Antinique Smith as wife Faith Evans evokes a believably acidic love rivalry.

Meanwhile, Derek Luke is convincing as P Diddy, irrespective of him seeming less like the shrewd business man we see in the media and more like an angelic mentor in a shiny suit, who at one point offers Biggie a piece of advice that sounds as if it was discovered in a fortune cookie: “Don’t chase the money, chase the dream.”

In hindsight that is truly the kind of film ‘Notorious’ is. On the surface a glossy, nostalgic portrait of 90’s Hip Hop shot to Brooklyn beats and edited with frenetic flair. While below, it is another airy Afro-American melodrama and an earnest morality tale.

DAVID MENSAH

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