SET IT OFF: Notorious

The legacy you leave is not measured in possessions you have when you expire.  It’s not measured by the things you did, but by the effect that you had on the people who loved you and how different the world is for you being there.

 

Christopher Wallace was an amazing individual whose words altered perception of him despite his striking image.  His biggest power was the ability to make your ears overpower your eyes; an alchemist that changed “Black and ugly as ever” into an object of physical desire.

 

Beneath that power lies the truth.  Biggie Smalls was a true master of connection. He could find that central point that unites our collective experience and simplify it to the point that no matter who heard him, they would understand what he had to say.  That legacy is what makes him an important figure, flaws and all, and is also what inspires the movie Notorious. During the filming of the film I had the distinct pleasure of being on set to see the behind the scenes creation of this movie. 

 

Consequently, this is the largest budget that Fox Searchlight has ever committed to a film. For it to be about a rapper, speaks to how much they believe in this project. Today’s particular shooting chronicles a 1996 performance at the Georgia Dome, post the Quad Studio shooting of Tupac, and amid the East/West hysteria. Here are some of my observations.

 

The first thing they make known is that this movie is the vision of Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace. As such, it stands as perhaps her chance to tell the story not of the rapper, whose life unfolded in the media, but of her son, Christopher Wallace.  Those stories don’t necessarily align. Miss Wallace has been on the set every day, overseeing every aspect of the film’s creation.  Don’t get it twisted, you may rewind this, but Bad Boy’s not behind this.

 

I asked Miss Wallace how it felt to see such a large part of her life unfold on the screen. She responded, “When I did my book, I felt I was done, but there’s so many documentaries.  And once you see them it gets so out there that it’s like you’re watching the Godfather. 

 

I said so many people love my son; I’m going to do his life. This is about a man with a heart. I want the world to see that no matter what they come from they can be the greatest.”

 

Obviously this is a movie, so there is a certain amount of Hollywood needed to connect story arcs within the film. When asked about some of these instances, Miss Wallace was very forthcoming.  “The jail scene never happened,” she replied, “they had me praying in jail and that’s whatever.  They had some things about his father that didn’t happen and I had that taken out.”

 

Miss Wallace never misses a date on the set, commuting from PA every morning and she wields full control over the script. It’s clear that in a very real sense this is her movie. This is her chance to give the world her son but on her terms; to give the story of the man, not the entertainer or the rapper.

 

A while later I met up with the lovely Antonique Smith, who plays Faith in the film. She briefly spoke of the idiosyncrasies of playing someone that’s still alive. In her performance, she chose to interpolate rather than imitate Faith. She watched footage and read about her. “On the one side, I have her as a resource and I can ask her what was going on in her mind,” Smith said. “On the other hand I want to make her happy.” The aspiring singer has been planning for the spotlight since her early youth. From what I saw on the set, you will not be disappointed.

 

The person of interest in all of this is Naturi Naughton, cast in the role of Lil’ Kim.  It’s not secret how central Kim was to the story of B.I.G., but also well-known is the running enmity between Biggie’s mom and Kim. 

With Miss Wallace at the helm of this project, it’s curious to see how Kim would be portrayed. Naughton, formerly of R&B group 3LW is all grown up, and added some insight into how this would play out.

 

“My agent submitted my name to the auditions.  I don’t rap, so[initially] I doubted myself. Once I got a call back I got focused and challenged myself. Maybe 50% of the Kim you see on screen is me. I’m definitely not Kim, as far as my public persona. Totally different. 

But the confidence and the sex appeal as a woman is me.  Naughton continued,”There has to be a little of the character in you or it won’t be believable.  I’m learning that I have that feistiness.”

 

Obviously no look at this movie is complete without checking out the guy who plays B.I.G., aspiring rapper Jamal Woolard, p.k.a Gravy. Yes the same Gravy from the HOT 97 incident a few years ago who got shot in the posterior.  Physically, he’s pretty close. Roughly the same height and weight. Same Brooklyn swagger as B.I.G., but obviously that’s not enough. Biggie was more than that.

 

Woolard was chosen after a nationwide search, and after chosen he was subjected to a Biggie bootcamp. He was coached in the studio for weeks by one of Bad Boy’s infamous Hitmen, D-Dot Angelette. He spent four months in total getting the mannerisms down, including weeks with cotton balls in his mouth to manufacture that crisp husky voice. There are times when the music is blaring and he’s rapping along that it’s positively haunting. This particular day and scene requires a rendition of “Who Shot Ya.”  I had my doubts initially but he has it down pat.

 

Aside from Miss Wallace, there are some very good people attached to this film. George Tillman (the director), Wayne Barrow, Mark Pitts, D-Dot, Puffy, and even Un Rivera had a hand in bringing the film as close to what really happened as possible.

 

Says Barrow, “22 million people feel that they have ownership of this movie, but there are three people I care about: Miss Wallace and his two kids.”

To the question of what his obligation is for this movie, Barrow responded, “That those kids know who their father is. At the core of this movie, it’s a mother/son story. 

It’s also a love story.  It’s a story about womanizing and friendship and so many other stories. It’s about universal experience.”

 

And so we come full circle. The man whose most powerful weapon was that universal connection having that same experience displayed in pictures to the people who loved the persona, but didn’t really know the man at the center of it.  From my experience that day, this project is in capable hands and Hip-Hop may add a new movie to its “must-have” list as the first major motion picture about the life of one of our own. Cut.

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