Stop us if you heard this one before: An unheralded, upstart artist joins an ensemble cast of proven actors and delivers a defining performance in biopic period piece.
“I’m like the 2009 Jennifer Hudson,” rapper Jamal “Gravy” Woolard says, laughing at his improbable turn as hip-hop titan Biggie Smalls in Notorious, due in theaters January 16th.
The thing is, it’s no joke. Woolard more than holds his own next to seasoned vets Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got To Do With It), Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) and Anthony Mackie (She Hate Me). According to those close to the film, the Brooklyn lyricist-turned-thespian endured an intense boot-camp-like training at Julliard, where he dove into method-acting techniques and had cotton balls stuffed in his mouth to learn better diction. Getting shot in the butt two years ago outside of New York radio station Hot 97 was likely a less painful experience for Gravy.
In Notorious, Director George Tillman Jr. gives viewers a crash course on Christopher Wallace. The movie begins with the Brooklyn MC’s youth and quickly leads to his eventual life as Kwest, the hustler who also raps, who then becomes full-time MC, the Notorious B.I.G.
Along the way milestone moments are revisited, including Luke’s Puffy being fired from his cushy Uptown Records job and then birthing Bad Boy, Suge Knight’s infamous speech at the Source Awards that helped stoke the Coastal feud, and the Quad Studio shooting that spiraled Mackie’s Shakur into a vengeful paranoia.
(One glaring absence of note was the Biggie/’Pac performance at New York club the Tunnel; the song is still a staple for DJs and helps connects to two artists’ passion and kinetic friendship.)
The movie may lack depth due to a short running time and a longing to touch on multiple years of Big’s life (the film was produced by Biggie’s family and managers). But what Notorious lacks in intensity, it makes up for with warmth, particular as it portrays Biggie’s relationships with the women in his life; his mother Voletta Wallace, Lil Kim and his wife, Faith Evans. Woolard transmits a range of emotions (always the right ones) through his doughy eyes, from sorrow to rage and to remorse, such as the moment he tries to mimic Evans’ beat box one too many times in hopes of earning a smile.
“Biggie’s spirit was there throughout,” Tillman (Men of Honor, Barbershop) says of the 38-day shoot that took place on-location in New York and Los Angeles. “Having his real people there — Money L, his real hype man, DJ Enuff, his real DJ — it added energy. It’s different when you do a biopic when the character is gone. But when they feel alive, you capture that. And the movie needed that.”
Having Lil Cease, Big’s ubiquitous everything man from his group Junior Mafia, around certainly helped. “The funny thing about ‘Cease, he remembers things vividly,” Mackie explains. “He was [on set] giving pinpoint accurate details of everything that happened. “It seems like he was fucked up all the time, but he remembered all of it!”
Luke agrees: “Puff visited and told me to just tell the story that I think is true. He barely visited the set because it was so emotional,” says the actor, who claims the hardest part of getting into character was wearing Diddy’s then-trademark Versace shirts around a cast adorned in black timbs and hoodies. “But Cease, he knows some shit. He’d tell us stories about how Biggie would be, ‘This nigga Puff always trying to take the shine!’ But Big knew he had to bet on Puff cause Puff bet on him.”
The gamble Biggie and Puff take on each other is overemphasized in the film. Early in the plot Luke tells Woolard, “To change the world, you got to change yourself first,” which Woolard’s Biggie later repeats to his boss before his shooting death. But cliched storytelling tricks aside, it’s hard not to smile watching a story that only occurred 11 years ago and marvel at how much hip-hop has changed. Biggie and Faith’s relationship practically played out on Hot 97’s rotation and in the pages of VIBE. It’d be hard to imagine Jay-Z and Beyoncé ever being as candid as a couple. For all of Biggie’s warts, however, Christopher Wallace the man possessed a charm that was as beautiful as a Notorious B.I.G. verse. And it’s on full display on the big screen.
Mom was proud. “I just wanted to read Ms. Wallace’s face,” Woolard says of Big’s mom reaction after her screening. “She was taking her glasses off, with a tissue and wiping her eyes. I felt like I won my victory, because I wanted her to feel like her son was next to her. And we hugged. We didn’t have to say anymore after that.”