Lights, Camera, Biggie: First-time actor Jamal Woolard (left) as Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G., and Derek Luke as Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, in "Notorious", directed by George Tillman Jr.  The film opened across North America today.  (Photo:  Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Notorious"

For This Notorious Big Poppa, A Big Ups From George Tillman Jr.

By Omar P.L. Moore/January 16, 2009

George Tillman Jr. gets it right with "Notorious" (not the remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 thriller with Cary Grant), but the biopic story of Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., the Brooklyn-born rap star icon who didn't make it past his 24th birthday after being killed in 1997.  Mr. Tillman directs first-time actor Jamal Woolard, outstanding in the title role.  Mr. Woolard, also from Brooklyn, was selected from hundreds of thousands in an open casting call across the country.  As Big Poppa Mr. Woolard brings a charisma, warmth and teddy-bear smoothness to the role, and as he is on screen for a large majority of the film his performance, up against the great Angela Bassett (who excels playing Biggie' mother), rises and is impressive to say the least.  Mr. Woolard isn't afraid to display the more imperious side of Mr. Wallace's persona.

Mr. Tillman, who has directed such films as "Soul Food" and "Men Of Honor", gives "Notorious" a texture compatible with the heartbeats of the Brooklyn streets and the adoring fans who loved Mr. Wallace.  The film is a visually seductive anthem to the streets of Brooklyn and to the love the people of that city and many, many others had for the oversized rapper.  The director manages to convey a portrait of the young man from childhood (early on played by Mr. Wallace's real life surviving son) through his untimely and tragic death, exposing warts and all.  Mr. Tillman wisely avoids romanticizing the drugs that Mr. Wallace sold and the violence that he rapped about on his records.  And he doesn't use an escape route and make Mr. Wallace a martyr, either.  There's plenty of gold and other assorted "bling" to go around, but "Notorious" only observes, rather than plunges us deep into it.  We are treated to the tender side of Mr. Wallace, the philandering playboy who can't get enough of the ladies, and the irresponsible father who doesn't visit the children he leaves in his wake.  "Notorious" illustrates that this famous man-child was still growing into his own life and finding a way to understand it before the sad, shocking and sudden fall comes.

Cinematographically much of "Notorious" resembles "Juice", with its gritty urban and hard edged look.  There's even a reference to that film, also set in Brooklyn, which starred Tupac Shakur, the rapper who was also killed before he hit his thirties back in 1996.  Mr. Shakur is played in "Notorious" with zeal and enthusiasm by Anthony Mackie ("She Hate Me", "Million Dollar Baby", "Eagle Eye"), whose amiable demeanor turns near paranoid when an attempt on Mr. Shakur's life is made.  Mr. Tillman builds the relationship between Mr. Wallace and Mr. Shakur, who in real life were friends, introducing dramatic hooks to eventually place them on opposite poles, east coast-west coast, much like the way the mainstream media these days speaks of America as red states and blue states.  (The sadness of the artifice of this division is that both men were actually born and raised on the east coast.)  Mr. Tillman doesn't take sides on the issue of who was responsible for the murders of either of these very young men, who at some moments were misunderstood by those outside their fandom; he merely plays the events as they lay, unlike Nick Broomfield, whose documentary "Biggie And Tupac" makes strong and somewhat controversial accusations.  Mr. Tillman also illustrates the American media's role in fomenting the false divisions between both of these larger-than-life figures, weaving actual news footage into his film, bringing to it a documentary element.  This risky move threatens to halt the pulsating energy the film possesses, but amazingly in the end it all comes together, making "Notorious" even more resonant and moving.  Mr. Tillman captures the freshness and recent nostalgia of the late 1980's and mid-1990's hip-hop world with color, brightness and affection.

"Notorious" never gets as deeply personal as, say, Lauren Lazin's excellent documentary on Biggie's friend, "Tupac: Resurrection", after all, it is a feature film.  But Mr. Tillman's film is deeply affecting and you feel this as you watch the enticing end credits, which you shouldn't leave in the middle of.

The other elements of "Notorious" track the development of the longtime brother-like partnership of Mr. Wallace and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, the impresario and now multi-millionaire producer and businessman.  Mr. Combs (aka "Diddy"), who in real life also acts and runs marathons when he's not busy turning up at  star-studded events, making records or running his Bad Boy Records or Sean John clothing empires, is portrayed with confidence, assurance and cool by Derek Luke, who while not looking like Mr. Combs, renders his essence.  It is difficult to play someone real who is still very much alive and well but Mr. Luke handles it almost effortlessly, even if some in the audience will laugh heartily when they first see him.  "Notorious", which also views the relationships the title character has with the many women in his life, flows well.  The song "Big Poppa" and other songs sung by the real-life Mr. Wallace are heard in the film and the portrayals of music artists Faith Hill (by Antonique Smith) and Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) are right on target.  Like their male counterparts, each woman too is on polar opposites in "Notorious": one is the angelic, maternal figure, the other is the raunchy, come-get-it persona that Millie Jackson would have admired in her heyday.

It cannot be emphasized enough: you want to see more of Angela Bassett in "Notorious", for she is so good here.  Rarely has Ms. Bassett played a false note in her illustrious career on the big screen, championing the causes of resolute women on her resume, whether it be the vulnerable but strong-willed chauffeur in the film "Strange Days", or the courageous and resolute Dr. Betty Shabazz in "Malcolm X" or as the resilient Tina Turner in "What's Love Got To Do With It".  There's a level of depth, integrity and earnestness to her work that is also seen in the work of actors like Denzel Washington, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Terrence Howard, Gary Oldman, Alfre Woodard, Meryl Streep (especially her earlier work) and Cate Blanchett.  The fact that the greatly under-appreciated Ms. Bassett essentially has a cameo role in "Notorious" leaves you wanting more from her, but this film is all Mr. Woolard's for the taking.  And he takes it.

"Thanks for making big men sexy again," says one big man fan to the onscreen Mr. Wallace at a record signing event.  You want to thank Mr. Tillman for making a film that resists the exalting and self-aggrandizing that many biopics all too often blare, despite hearing that ugly, dreaded "n-word" which is repeatedly uttered here (and sadly, all too often in real-life) much more than the standard curse-words you might expect to hear in an R-rated film.

"Notorious" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content.  The film's running time is one hour and 40 minutes, though it feels longer, thanks to its impact.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2009.  All Rights Reserved.

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