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Notorious

By
Notorious
Released on Monday, Feb 9 2009

Director: George Tillman Jr
Screenwriters: Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker
Starring: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Angela Bassett, Anthony Mackie, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith
Running time: 123 mins
Certificate: 15

East Coast rapper Christopher 'B.I.G' Wallace only really became 'Notorious' after being implicated in the drive-by shooting of rival LA lyricist Tupac Shakur in 1996. A year later he met the same end, but this film by George Tillman Jr is less about the street politics and more about the slushy soap opera going on at home. Wallace's mother Voletta is one of the producers along with his old cohort Sean 'P Diddy' Combs, and their aim seems to be convincing the world that, hey, Biggie was no saint but he was no murderer either. Apparently he was too busy with other clichés.

On the upside, fellow rapper Jamal Woolard delivers a wholly convincing performance in the title role. Being the archetypal kid who 'came up hard' on the streets of Brooklyn - and was teased for being fat - he's remarkably brimming full of confidence. His mother Voletta (Angela Bassett doing her hard-as-nails thing) is the only woman who doesn't fall for his charms, instead applying a little tough love when he gets mixed up in the drugs trade and announces that his teenage girlfriend is pregnant. Whilst momma reads him the riot act, Biggie vents all of his frustrations through rap.

The first half of the film is little more than a hip-hop video montage of singing, drug-slinging and skirt chasing with very few insights into the man himself. We only know that he grew up idolising those guys with the 'bling' and the 'blat-blat', because he says so in voiceover. When he finally signs a record deal with Combs (Derek Luke), he takes it all for granted. His wife and child are swept to the background as he makes the sudden switch from drug-dealing family man to hip-hop player, and not a moment is spared to weigh up this betrayal. He goes on like that for much of the film, treating women like disposable wipes. But then so does the script.

Naturi Naughton has the misfortune of playing Lil' Kim, the gal rapper who eventually winds up in Biggie's bed. And if Lil' Kim's one claim to being a feminist icon is her take-charge approach to sex (expressed in x-rated lyrics) the writers do her a disservice; they paint her as a whiny, clingy, whimpering little girl. Singer and subsequent wife Faith Evans is portrayed with a touch more dignity by Antonique Smith, but there still is no depth to the character. The men, by and large, fare better. Anthony Mackie stands out as Tupac, but again the script leaves too many questions unanswered about the way his friendship with Biggie turned sour so quickly.

Taking on the pivotal role of 'Puffy' Combs (aka P. Diddy), Derek Luke exudes all the necessary charisma. On the flipside, there is no acknowledgement of his flaws, which mightn't be surprising since the real P. Diddy is the executive producer. He comes out of the bloody East Coast/West Coast fracas looking clean as a whistle and, moreover, takes credit for acting as a Jiminy Cricket to Biggie (in similar clothes!), steering him away from a life of crime and, when stardom goes to his head, talking him back down again. He reminds Biggie of his duties as a father and son, and by this point the film has the air of an after-school special about it. Biggie and Combs chant that "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves", which is all well and good, but Tillman doesn't convey that evolution fully enough. This is the Notorious BIG in 2D.


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