There is no denying the fact that Christopher Wallace forever changed the way the masses would view hip-hop when his seminal album, Ready to Die, hit the shelves in 1994. The controversy and mystique that followed Biggie after that release, subsequently blown out of anything even remotely resembling proportion after his as-yet unsolved murder in March 1997, have effectively created a director’s wet-dream. The story of the Notorious B.I.G.’s meteoric rise and tragic demise is truly (forgive me) “juicy” to say the least. Crafting a biographical narrative of one of hip-hop’s most (this one’s bad) “notorious” figures would make any director worth his or her salt jump at the chance to direct it. One might even say a director would feel (Oh, dear God, why am I doing this?) “hypnotized” by the possibilities of a Biggie biopic.
For Notorious, George Tillman Jr. took the director’s chair for the first time since Men of Honor in 2000, marking a triumphant return to the post. Tillman's sense of pacing, production design choices, and cinematography are nothing short of marvelous. One of my favorite elements of film, and one that truly distinguishes it from other art forms, is the relative technical ease with which it can evoke a mood. Whereas authors like Cooper or Joyce might spend pages detailing what exactly we’re supposed to understand about the surroundings of any action that might take place in the story, all a director needs is to understand where best to put the camera. And George Tillman Jr. knows exactly where to put his camera. His naturalistic visual style bleeds over into his narrative, which shies away from the moralizing and braggadocio that we’ve come to associate with the musical biopic, and weaves an impressive, fresh take on Wallace’s life and success.
Notorious lives and breathes in a way seldom achieved on screen, especially in a film rooted in actual events. The script was co-written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker and arguably constitutes Bythewood’s best work since he penned Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus in ’96. Coker wrote the definitive biography of Wallace, Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G., and his assistance with the script is evident in the air of authenticity that permeates the film. The authenticity of the script and the mesmerizing way in which it elegantly captures the life of one of the most recognizable and mythologized men in recent memory is a tribute to the skill of both writers.
That said, Notorious does suffer a bit from the all too familiar stilted dialogue that plagues almost every biopic (even some good ones). Sloganeering like “We’re going to change the world, man!” rings out in some obvious places and changes the tone of the film from that of homage to one of hagiography. Thankfully, the clichés are few and far between — they’re actually pretty minor when considered inside the scope of the film, which rings true to the life and times of Biggie Smalls.
The casting of Notorious is, simply put, perfect. The actors fully inhabit their characters, and it shows throughout the entirety of the film. Jamal Woolard plays the titular character, and it’s a bit hard to believe that this is his first performance in a film. His seemingly effortless representation of Wallace verges on what some might call channeling, and his real-life career as a hip-hop artist serves him well in the musical sequences that pepper the film. Meanwhile, Angela Bassett does an admirable turn as Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s long-suffering mother, but her character seems a little glossed over and altogether too saintly — possibly because the real Mrs. Wallace was involved with the production. The only real gripe one might come up with regarding the ensemble is the fact that Derek Luke makes Puff Daddy seem a little too lifelike.
Notorious radiates the essence of mid-’90s Brooklyn, down to the very last detail, and Tillman doesn’t merely craft a compelling narrative of Biggie — he creates an environment in which the character can truly exist. It is a credit to Mr. Tillman that his production does not lose itself in the mire of the material success and larger-than-life style of Mr. Wallace. Eschewing the bling and baller shit that Biggie got into near the end of his life, Tillman instead focuses on the struggles and small triumphs that made up Biggie’s daily life. In doing so, Notorious is an honest portrayal that reaches beyond the controversy, creating an indelible image of who Christopher Wallace really was.