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“Just like Jamie Foxx was Ray, Jamal is Biggie!”
One DVD that should fly off the shelves is Notorious, starring rapper Jamal Woolard as Chris “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Woolard’s is just one performance at which I was totally surprised.
Having seen Derek Luke in many films, I wouldn’t have believed that he could deliver such a strong portrayal of Sean Puffy Combs. I figured he didn’t have the chops. Now I know he can act; but didn’t think he could pull this one off. But he shocked me, gladly—the same as when Denzel Washington played the bad guy in Training Day. Luke seemed to have all the mannerisms of Puffy; probably after having studied him tremendously.
Luke joins the newcomer, Woolard, in the story of the Brooklyn, New York, “bigger than life” Hip Hop star Notorious B.I.G., who really died way too soon.
The directors were eager to find someone “to try to capture the essence of B.I.G.” And Woolard fits the bill perfectly!
But, in the conundrum that’s become known as the “East Coast/West Coast” feud among rappers, both Biggie (as I’ll refer to him) and the late Tupac Shakur, played in the movie by Anthony Mackie, ended up on cold, steel slabs right when they were trying to make their marks on the music scene. In both cases the urban legends predicted their deaths: Biggie lamented that he would die soon, and sadly he was murdered in 1997 before his second album dropped. And reportedly, Tupac had worked on an unfinished video that depicted his demise, shortly before his shooting death in 1996.
The story Notorious examines the life of Biggie, after briefly showing the circumstances leading up to his shooting death in Los Angeles.
Biggie was just slinging dope at the age of 17 and getting into trouble in the streets of Brooklyn; he had even done a stint in jail. But before this time, he had taken to writing rhymes. His mother, Voletta, played by Angela Bassett, was originally from Jamaica, but to be truthful I didn’t notice a West Indian accent until way after Bassett had a few lines under her belt in the movie. Bassett plays an overprotective, single mother who worries about her son so much; and is very surprised to learn that what she thought was mashed potatoes stashed under his bed was, in fact, his stash of drugs.
While Biggie is in jail the first time; he has a baby with a young lady whom he had been dating. They never marry, but the girl manages to remain a part of Biggie’s life, thanks a lot to his mother.
“Dealing drugs was my life, rapping was my chick on the side,” he says in the movie.
But after his release from jail, Biggie really concentrated on writing rhymes, in an effort to steer away from the drug dealing.
And no matter how much fame and adulation Biggie’s new-found status afforded him—his mother wasn’t entirely pleased with his rapping career—and he would eventually drop out of school.
Puffy met Biggie after some guys heard him “rock the mic.” At first, Puffy, who was initially working for another record label, was apprehensive, but he really liked Biggie, and shortly afterword Puffy’s Bad Boy Records was created. Biggie was 19 when he started with Puffy, who promised him that by the age of 21 he would be a success.
Biggie received $60,000 for his first advance; and he was like a kid when he first walked into the studio to record his first tracks.
Biggie had this “childlike” quality to him (flashy outfits, thick, rope-like chains, cane and all). Once described as “fat, black and ugly,” I suppose it was his charisma and fame, under the watchful guidance of Puffy, that made him the hottest ticket in Brooklyn, allowing him access to any and every woman that he desired.
Lil’ Kim is played in the movie by Naturi Naughton and is portrayed as being very sluttish. There was recent media around this, too, as Lil’ Kim, who’s made her own inroads as a “femcee,” has claimed she was not really that promiscuous.
Biggie eventually marries rapper Faith Evans, after a very brief relationship. Their marriage is good at times, but during the down times, Biggie gets caught up and “caught” cheating. Faith finally leaves, but they don’t divorce before he’s gunned down.
Wallace’s own son plays him as a young boy; which I gather had to be kind of surreal and exciting at the same time.
There are many situations in the movie that I’m unsure if they were fabricated or if they are factual, considering that Biggie’s life has been played out in the media a great deal since his death.
I took all this in, thinking that Biggie was just trying to make a name for himself in a community that wasn’t thriving in the customary ways; mostly due to lack of formal education. His story is an interesting one, considering that he did find huge success in the Hip Hop world, as Puffy had promised him.
Unfortunately, he didn’t enjoy the fruits of his labor for too long, and in the film his mother, sadly, doesn’t fully realize the impact he’s had on the community until the funeral procession travels through the neighborhood. It was such a powerful moment to see her finally connect with the throngs of fans lined along the route.
Even now, during interviews, you can tell she probably misses her son immensely and maybe wishes she had believed in his dreams as much as he did. But she did serve as a co-producer on the film.
“This is a story many of you never knew. Since my son’s death, there are so many projects, documentaries, books. Why not a mother come up with a project about the rapper, the son, the father, the entertainer, the icon that everybody spoke about?” Voletta Wallace said. “This is my project, and I wanted to film a story about my son.”
The unrated director’s cut Collector’s Edition Notorious (with bonus interviews and materials) is available on DVD and Blu-ray from FOX Home Entertainment on April 21.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a veteran public relations and journalism professional and former journalism professor. She’s publicist for her daughter, Hip-Hop artist Psalm One. A native Chicago South Sider, Elaine was a recent University of Maryland Bio Ethics, Health Disparities & Clinical Trials Fellow and winner of a Black Press Messenger Award.
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