MOVIE REVIEW: Notorious

Recounting the life of a legendary MC twelve years past his death is a daunting task. Especially when the details of his death are so unclear that the book is still wide open. However, Fox Searchlight took the initiative to release Hip-Hop’s first bipioc Notorious – a film that may skim the surface of a basic tale, but will blast the doors open for Hip-Hop in Hollywood.

We all know how the story ends, but do we know where it begins? Christopher “Biggie” Wallace (Jamal “Gravy” Woolard), a drug dealer with a passion for lyrical expression, begins his journey in Brooklyn, NY as a private school kid (CJ Wallace) coping with the abandonment of his father and the strong arm of his mother, Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett). The fact that Notorious B.I.G.’s son CJ portrays his younger self adds a deep realism to the story, especially in a scene where little Biggie is posted up on a stoop writing angry rhymes about living without his dad.

By teenage years, Wallace is on his first child and serving a prison term, when the real MC is born. By the time he’s freed, he’s back on the street corner ciphers murdering cats with his buddy D-Roc (Dennis L.A. White) and Lil’ Cease (Marc John Jeffries). Kimberly “Lil’ Kim” Jones (Naturi Naughton), apparently a customer service rep in her early days, is lured in by Biggie’s je ne sais quoi and spends their first encounter on a mattress.

Then Biggie’s life changes. A meeting with Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) marks the moments where Big must leave the street mentality on wax and start thinking like a businessman. Besides nailing every Puffy dance move, Derek Luke adds a humility to Puff that we never saw before – especially when he is fired by Andre Harrell. In an act of desperation, Big goes on one last heist and is caught by the cops. D-Roc takes the fall so Biggie can build his music career…and so it all begins.

The lights, the cameras, the action. We witnessed all of this, but never through Biggie’s eyes. From a budding friendship with Tupac (Anthony Mackie) that ends destructively sour, to a barely courted marriage and separation from Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), Biggie’s duties as a father, a husband, a friend and an MC were never mutually exclusive. Gravy’s portrayal of Biggie is eerily on point. The talk, the walk, the swagger, the asthma. However, Naughton’s role as Kim really brings it home. Certain scenes in Notorious will replay in the mind for months, including Faith beating a woman to the ground in a hotel room after catching her in Big’s bed, Lil’ Kim flashing her bottom half at a concert debuting Junior M.A.F.I.A., Tupac being shot at Quad Recording Studios, and every moment Gravy brought Biggie on stage.

A disturbing piece in the Notorious puzzle is Big’s tumultuous relationship with Lil’ Kim. What started as a love affair became abusive dealings, like shoving Kim around sound booths and urging her to be crudely risqué, which is Kim’s signature style to date.

While Notorious may not any answer any questions about Big’s death, it tells a lot about his life – a legacy that many knew, but few understood.

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