‘Notorious’ is the latest project from Model of Honour director George Tillman Jr. Introducing cinema goers and hip hop fans alike to the acting talents of little know Jamal ‘Gravy’ Woolward who holds his own in the titular role in a cast full of established heavy weight actors, in this Notorious B.I.G biopic.

Notorious B.I.G lives in the heart of many hip hop music lovers around, there are many things that can be said about Biggie Smalls, The larger than life rapper from Brooklyn whose meteorised rise to fame came to a sudden halt due to his untimely death at the tender age of 24. Gunned down in a hail of bullets on Wilshire boulevard in Los Angles whilst promoting his debut album (ironically named) ‘Ready to Die.’ One clear attribute to Biggie that fit his large frame is a slight one that lead to his success is flow. Biggie was a master with lyrical flow, his hypnotic seduction of words weaving and teasing you like the perpetual haze trailing from his blunts. Biggie’s deep rumbles in his oration, the slow, liquid roll of his body as he moved, further it. This ‘Biggieesquesness’ is dulfully caught by Jamal Woolward, the young rapper also from Brooklyn capturing Biggie in as close form as imaginable.

This is where the film begins and seeks to retell the story of Notorious through flashback to bring the audience back to this moment(similar to Memento almost). With executive producers Sean ‘P.Diddy Comes (Puff Daddy during Biggies career) and Voletta Wallace (Biggies Real mum) The story holds detailed truths vividly, magically told in the first half of the film, with Biggies real son Christopher Jordan Wallace Jnr. playing his dad as a young Biggie. As we move into Biggies later life from high, school to dynamite rapping sensation. We see Biggie a smart young boy who seeks bigger things in life, obsessed by the materialism around him as his mother tries to raise him with an iron fist towards a good future from her Jamaican background. As the film develops we see Biggie the mama’s boy and a ladies’ man; a lovable teddy bear and a glowering criminal; a high-living celebrity and a neighbourhood character — all this and more rolled up in the massive, slow-moving frame of Jamal Woolard.

The other character on screen all gel together (bar Lukes’ P.Diddy , whose ‘Diddyness’ is not effectively characterised and portrayed on screen)  to create a well structured ensemble. In the film Bassett hold her own as Biggie Smalls mother, coming across warm and powerful in presence. Her performance much like Woolward is funny and feisty – especially on one occasion where she throws away a dish of cocaine that Biggie has hastily hid under his bed, thinking it’s a plate of “nasty, dried up old mash potatoes.” The two fair extremely well together on screen and the mother son chemistry is visible especially when Biggie goes to prison for the first time. He calls her and they pray together, and the sound of Bassett’s brings tears to his eyes. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider Bassett’s experience and Woolard’s inexperience; they share the screen naturally and comfortably, neither pushing nor pulling their scenes out of shape. Antonique Smith, who plays Faith Evans, the creamy R&B chanteuse who would become Biggie’s wife and the mother of his son, is delicious in the role. Naturi Naughton gives Lil’ Kim, a rapper and Biggie’s longtime lover, a raw, raging edge that scalds everything around her allowing many hip hop follower to see the origins of her lyrical content

The story handles many of Biggies struggles throughout life, from his relationship with women, early friendship with Tupac, growth into a man and change in lyrical content as he grows as a rapper. What’s more, any hope you have that the movie might shed at least speculative light on the possibly linked deaths of Biggie and Tupac (investigated in Nick Broomfield’s provocative documentary “Biggie and Tupac”) are frustrated by its careful vagueness. There’s some attention given to the East Coast-West Coast feuding that shook up hip-hop in the 1990s, but not much new insight or perspective. However, Notorious isn’t out to prove anything or blame anybody; it wants to lay Biggie peacefully to rest. By the film’s end, he has smoothed out all his loose ends, has left words of wisdom for his daughters (“don’t let anyone call you a bitch,” which I guess is better than nothing), and has gained a new, positive outlook on life. Some will allude that it feels like a bit of a cheat, but in some ways it’s also a brave move, deliberately subtracting the violence that hip-hop movies have come to be known for. The movie even downplays drugs; in one scene, Biggie’s mentor childes him for dealing to a pregnant lady. Instead of the sensationalism of rap violence we get some truly invigorating stage and studio performances, as well as the obligatory street battle, suggesting just why Biggie’s literate lyrics — not to mention his appearance — were something entirely new at the time.

In “Notorious,” Tillman shows how talent can lift a kid up off the street corner, but can’t protect him in a culture of violence. The film is wonderfully scripted and shot, leaving viewers with a warm disposition of the magical Brooklyn rapper.

Ian Thompson

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