Notorious (review)

A Thug’s Life

No! Biggie Smalls’ mother produced this movie? And her own grandson — the real Biggie Smalls’ own son — stars as the little Biggie? And Sean “Puffy” Combs, Biggie’s pal and onetime producer, the friend and fellow rapper whom Smalls is not suspected in the death of (that would be Tupac Shakur), helped produce it too? Really?

No wonder Notorious gives new depth of meaning to the word hagiography.
Now, now, Biggie — aka Notorious B.I.G., the latter for his precocious rotundness, the former as a way of making himself sound even more dangerous than he was; real name: Christopher Wallace (played by Brooklyn rapper Jamal Woolard) — was no saint, as such, just a regular kid trying to find his way on the tough streets of Brooklyn in the early ’90s. “In the beginning, God gave me a clean slate,” Biggie himself narrates for us from beyond the grave, but he fell from grace, see. He was a good student but had to become a drug dealer at age 12 to survive. Well, not actually to survive, but to be cool. Punk-ass teachers and garbagemen make bullshit $25,000 a year, but a kid too young to shave can walk around town with a fat wad of cash in his pocket and expensive bling around his neck. Dealing crack to pregnant women was just part of the job, something a guy had to do to get ahead… until a guy discovers a knack for encapsulating this violent, misogynistic world of his in spoken-word “songs” that speak to the violent misogynists who are his contemporaries.

“Drug dealing was like my wife,” Biggie tells us cheerfully. “Rap was just some chick on the side.” And there it is, Biggie’s ideas about what woman are good for — fathering a baby while still technically in high school, breaking up with the girl, and ignoring the child is only the beginning of it. It’s kinda funny, I guess, how we’re used to the typical rock ’n’ roll biopic being about the guy’s slide from decent person to womanizing drug-soaked jerk, but Biggie starts out that way. (If he was much of a user, we don’t see that — he’s “merely” a dealer.) He’s so wildly uncharming and unappealing that it’s hard to imagine what any female saw in him even after he got rich and famous, never mind before, but clearly, reality says this was the case. Still, the movie might have made one or two nods toward explaining Biggie’s appeal, for women or for music fans, instead of assuming it was a given. It isn’t.

And there’s surprisingly little reflection on Biggie’s part, though the movie imagines him speaking from a position where he should have hindsight, as if he hadn’t learned much at all from his “Live by the sword, die by the sword” lifestyle. I might have expected some hint of irony about how Biggie got off the streets by selling the streets right back to the streets, except he never really gets off the streets at all. He’s carrying a gun into a recording studio, for pete’s sake.

But Tupac? Tupac (Anthony Mackie: Eagle Eye, We Are Marshall) was just confused about stuff when he blamed Biggie and Puff for his first shooting, the one before the one that killed him. Biggie and Puff had nothing to do with it. They swear.

As you’re probably aware, if you’re under 40 and pay the slightest bit of attention to pop culture even if you’re not a fan of rap, Biggie was gunned down in 1997 at the age of 24 on the streets of Los Angeles, part of the bizarre East Coast/West Coast rapper “war” that involved actual exchange of gunfire. But instead of striving for any understanding of why American black pop culture seemed inevitably destined for such tragedy, or exploring how men such as Wallace and Shakur came to be such victims of their own excesses in the first place, filmmaker George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor) moves instead to place a halo on the head of Wallace, whom, we are told, would surely have metamorphosed into a kinder, gentler person if only given half a chance. Indeed, if Wallace was not merely a vicious thug who got lucky enough to make a fortune, there’s precious little evidence of it here beyond wishful thinking.

A far too premature biopic that is way too close to its subject matter for any hint of objectivity, and is far too forgiving? What can you expect from the dude’s mother?

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