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'Notorious' Depicts Rise of Legendary Rap Artist

NNPA, News Feature, Dwight Brown Posted: Jan 28, 2009

All my life I was trying to become a man. Biggie Smalls (May 21, 1972March 9, 1997)

Many may recall superstar rapper Biggie Smalls for his deep, resonating voice and cock-of-the-walk swagger, but few knew the real Christopher Wallace: mommas boy, ladies man, father. Biggies lyrics spanned the good times and the bad, street life, fast women and violence, and he rapped with a hip-swaying groove. His bullet-fast rise from inner-city obscurity to national prominence is a compelling rags-to-riches story worth retelling a notion that motivated his mother, Voletta Wallace, and former managers, Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitt, to produce the film "Notorious." Now fans and filmgoers alike have an opportunity to learn more about the real B.I.G

Christopher Wallace, played by Christopher Jordan Wallace during the rapper's younger years, was raised by an overprotective mother (Angela Bassett), who was determined not to let the mean streets of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, devour her son. As a pudgy, nerdy youth, Chris wore thick glasses and attended catholic school. But even with eyes at the back of her head, Voletta couldnt watch him 24/7. As an adolescent, Chris (Jamal Woolard, who portrayed his later years) sought the fast life and easy money. Weekdays, as soon as his mom turned the corner after sending him off to school, Chris would run up to the roof and change into street clothes, big sneakers and bling to prepare for his new 9-to-5 as a drug dealer.

Chris fathered a daughter with his teenage girlfriend, Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell). Rapping on street corners thrilled passersby and earned him a reputation. Drug dealing paid the bills that is, until he got busted. In lockup, Chris wrote songs about life, love and the streets. Upon his release, a demo tape of his music reached the ears of an ambitious young, marketing-savvy entrepreneur: Sean Puffy Combs (Derek Luke), CEO of Bad Boy Records. The rest is history: a million-selling debut album, an affair with the volatile Kimberly Lil Kim Jones (Naturi Naughton), a friendship gone awry with West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), a stormy marriage to singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), and an untimely demise.

If you had read about Biggie in the newspaper headlines back in the 90s, the drama surrounding his life seemed enigmatic. You would have known that it was filled with controversy, violence and messy love affairs, but you still would have no real feel for the man. Journalist-turned-screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker reviewed Biggies prophetic and tragically titled "Ready To Die" album for Rolling Stone magazine and interviewed him countless times, including the night before the rappers murder.

Cokers script brings Biggie to life. Aided by co-writer Reggie Rock Bythewood, Coker offers the life of a young innocent man, who goes on to face demons, success and death in a succinct 119-minute script with great dramatic arcs and memorable dialogue:

Puffy: What doesnt break a nigga, makes a nigga. Tupac: We takin your moneyand buyin your bitches with your money. Biggie: In the beginning, God gave me a free slate.

With colorful supporting characters like Puffy, Biggie, Lil Kim, Tupac and the ominous Suge Knight, Notorious story sells itself. Director George Tillman ("Soul Food," "Barbershop") gets truthful, emotional performances from the entire cast. Whether filming street sequences or love scenes, live concerts, drive-bys or funerals, Tillman exhibits a versatility thats equally at ease with drama, romance or hip hop culture.

Michael Gradys handheld camera brings you into the action and his exquisite lighting eroticizes love scenes. Jane Muskys production design aptly recreates the 90s. Dirk Westervelts editing doesnt miss a beat. Danny Elfmans score perfectly complements Biggies music Hypnotize, Juicy, Unbelievable which still resonates today.

Brooklyn rapper Woolard is a natural; he must have shocked the casting director. Woolard looks like, raps like and talks like Biggie. His emotional tool bag runs the gamut; he finds both the hardness and softness in the lead character.

Luke captures the essence of P. Diddy without caricature. Bassetts keen maternal instincts serve her well as the mother who must bury a son before his time. Mackie manifests Tupacs explosive, neurotic mania. Smith, who honed her skills on Broadway in the musical "Rent," shines as the vulnerable Faith Evans. Naughton adds pepper to Lil Kim. And with poetic justice, Biggies son Wallace portrays him as a child.

"Notorious" is revealing, contemplative and comprehensive. It artfully magically profiles Biggie Smalls, manchild in the hip hop Promised Land. In comparison, "8 Mile "is pale.

Notorious is B.I.G.

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