You can almost hear the Notorious B.I.G. sneering his trademark “get a grip, motherfuckers” at those who think the big thing about his life is the unsolved 1997 murder that ended it. Notorious is not a whodunit. The LAPD, having famously screwed up the case, still hasn’t nailed the killer in the Chevy who pulled up alongside the SUV that chauffeured the 300-pound Biggie from a Los Angeles party and pumped four bullets into his chest. At 24, the Brooklyn kid who morphed from crack dealer into rap icon was dead, just 10 days before the debut of his second CD, Life After Death.
It’s the spirit that Biggie Smalls, born Christopher Wallace, put into inventing himself and his music that ignites Notorious, a biopic that sees the flaws in the man but can’t help accentuating the positive. Why? Check the producer credits, which include Biggie’s teacher mom, Voletta Wallace (she called him “Chrissy Pooh”), his Bad Boy Records mentor, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and his managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts. Hell, Biggie’s 11-year-old son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, movingly plays his dad as a boy. You can’t fight that. And you may not want to. What keeps you riveted to Biggie’s official story is the actor who plays him. A new star is born in Jamal Woolard, who defines what it means to hypnotize. Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper known as Gravy, has no previous acting experience. Yet his portrayal amounts to a Biggie resurrection. It’s all there — the waddle, the head tilt, the swagger that drew women to his honey long before he had the bling. And when Biggie raps, Woolard gets his flow down to the “uh” in the “it’s all good, baby, bay-bee, uh” on “Juicy.” Rapping seems to order Woolard’s features, drawing life into his eyes. He’s a knockout.
The movie is forced to rush things, but Biggie biographer Cheo Hodari Coker, who co-wrote the script, gets in the essentials, starting with young Chris on the streets dealing despite warnings from his single mom (a vivid Angela Bassett). Gun possession, prison, the daughter he has with baby mama Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell) all put steel in Biggie’s music. His freestyle rap tape gets him tight with hip-hop honcho Combs (Derek Luke, limited by a sanitized role). Woolard and Luke are a kick trading raps on “Party & Bullshit,” but director George Tillman Jr., who sweetened Soul Food, goes soft when he should go for the jugular.
Notorious calls Biggie on his relationships with women, notably his protégé Kimberly “Lil’ Kim” Jones (Naturi Naughton), who had to put up with “ho” lessons to reach an erotic ideal Biggie never imposed on himself. The turbulence continued with R&B singer Faith Evans (a terrific Antonique Smith), who married and divorced Biggie and bore a son, Christopher, as rumors swirled she was catting around with Biggie friend-turned-archenemy Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).
The Tupac-Biggie feud intensifies when Tupac is shot in a 1994 New York robbery and blames Biggie. This relationship is the bruised heart of the movie, and Mackie (8 Mile) is outstanding, uncovering the fears that drove this complex man. The film brushes off conspiracy theories that Biggie was involved in Tupac’s 1996 murder, and it sees the East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars as a media ruse. Notorious leaves Biggie on the verge of a maturity that plays like wishful thinking. But even when this “authorized” movie biography makes you long for the “explicit” version, Woolard’s tour de force finds the human details that forged an artist and lets Biggie fly.