Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Smalls : the Biggie Biopic

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch an advance screening of the Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a surreal experience for me because Christopher Wallace a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G. was my next-door neighbor for a period of five years.

On a cold winter night last week, I watched groups of hip-hop disciples and preachers of the culture crowd BAM’s elegant lobby with hopes of catching the un-holy spirit of B.I.G. The special screening took place less than a mile from Chris’ St. James Place home. Amongst the hysteria I spotted a few familiar folks from the old block. Looking at them I recalled the faces of young men who had once paced up and down Fulton Street and lounged on brownstone steps. But now they looked like they were aging twice as fast. The “Ready to Die” street life had taken its toll. The leadership of their friend Chris was ten years past and maybe a film like “Notorious” could fill in that void and at least bring them a contact high.

The evening continued and grew odder as I watched Borough President Marty Markowitz big up Brooklyn -- he actually read some of Biggie’s lyrics to the packed theater. The film began and I felt sort of embarrassed for Chris’ proud mother and young children sitting in audience. I imagined the awkwardness they would feel to re-watch the good, bad and ugly life of Christopher Wallace in front of a devote audience who believed in the “Unbelievable”. Truly the film was preaching to this choir.


I first met Chris in 1992 when we would hang out on the front steps of our respective buildings. I at 230 St James Place, he next door at #226 (there was no #228). He was a very approachable guy, open to discuss most any topic with anybody. In the five or six conversations we had over a short period of time, we talked about art, power, film and of course music. Respectfully we always gave nods to each other when we crossed paths. From a distance, I watched him transform from just Chris on the block into a “Notorious” figure. It was always sad and confusing that this really nice guy would help peddle a gangster mentality to the Hip-hop world and die as one its famous fatalities. Maybe it was all a dream.

After the audience laughed at Derek Luke’s Diddy dance moves and cheered at Biggie’s sexual conquests, the credits rolled. I was left feeling a bit empty as the applause grew. In general, the film was entertaining and paced well, but for me it seriously lacked any emotional depth that could have revealed Chris’ complexity. I was never forced into the mind of Christopher Wallace. “Notorious” was not a cautionary tale, nor tragedy, but instead the film tried to be “a feel-good” movie about an artist who appeared to have no choice.

The quick assumption that going gangster was the only option for a kid in Brooklyn disturbed me. Chris’s unflinching appetite for money and crime is never established in the film. The gangster fantasies he presents in his lyrics act only as decor. Biggie’s gift is completely missing and never illustrated. Instead his greatness is assumed. The audience is asked to blindly follow because the hype tells us to.

Was Chris a bad, bad, bad man? Maybe, but the film makes sure it is “all good” in the end. Scenes before his death show Biggie squeezing in apologies to all the women he has beaten. There is even a moment where the pregnant woman that young Chris sold crack to early in the film, reappears years later completely cleaned up with a healthy child.


Obviously the task to do a biographical film is daunting. As a filmmaker, I’m probably overly critical of films that to do not try to reach beyond their grasp. But I feel the best art not only speaks to its audience but also elevates it. “Notorious” had a chance to do so much more for its devout, “built-in” fan base. The potential to tell an innovative story was enormous.

Think of the great biopics: Raging Bull (Jake LaMotta), I’m Not There (Bob Dylan), and 24 Hour Party People (Factory Records).

Example: Raging Bull (1980, Dir. M. Scorsese)
The Jake LaMotta character (played by Robert Deniro) is flawed, paranoid, and violent. Scorsese’s slow-mo point of views and Deniro’s dark performance bring you into his LaMota’s paranoia. The Lamota depiction is honestly imperfect. It does not have to be pretty to be beautiful. This neorealist approach could have served “Notorious” well to reveal Christopher Wallace’s battle with his own demons.

Where “Notorious” does gamble is with its lead Jamal Woolard aka Gravy who was selected from a large scale audition. Woolard is actually very good at impersonating the public persona of B.I.G., but he failed to capture Christopher’s emotional brightness and darkness.


After the screening I thought about why I was not convinced by Woolards’s portrayal. It hit me later that night as I stumbled upon the documentary "Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life" (2007), which contained rare home videos of B.I.G. The archives reminded me of how charming and fun Chris was. I mean how else did he get all these women to love him so much. Imagine Cedric The Entertainer with Brooklyn street creed. Chris could be mellow, but he also spoke with rapid enthusiasm. Woolard’s performance seemed to catch the well-documented “King of New York” personality, but the lively unguarded man was missing.


One day Chris told me about a song he worked on called “Suicidal Tendencies” (later re-titled as "Suicidal Thoughts" - read lyrics ). I always wonder why he told me about that song.

Once you get beyond Chris’ “keep it real” clich├ęs about fast life, there is a troubled man who struggled with the pulling temptations of good and bad -- pleasing his mother or pleasing his friends. Just look at some of his song titles [“Life after Death” ,“You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”, “Ready to Die”] and it reveals that the blues of B.I.G. resonates with confusion and powerlessness. His emcee name even points out this irony by including both “big” and “small”.

Maybe B.I.G.'s sadness is not the flaw we want to see in our heroes. The internal death wish of inner-city youth is a very serious issue that has an effect on all society. Clearly it is an issue complicated by race, American history, public policies and the prison system. This issue points out that despite all the fame, money and the success, Christopher Wallace was powerless against the lure of the streets and maybe tortured by the guilt of upsetting his mother.


"If he was around, I would slap the daylights out of him." - Voletta Wallace

Chris’ mother, played by Oscar Nominated actress Angela Basset, was underused in the film. I’d be intrigued to see more of the proud single mother’s personal conflict with her charming son and his criminal behavior. From a recent interview with Tavis Smiley it appears that the film is a bit of wake up call for Ms Wallace. ( see video)

“What was most troubling in this film was the fact that I never knew the man. There were things about him that I adored. I still love my son, don't get me wrong, but seeing the film, I don't like Christopher Wallace. He was not a very nice person, and that was more shocking to me. I've heard things over the years, I've heard statements over the years, and I would go back and ask, "Did that happen?" And some people said, "No, it never happened," …… “he was a very aggressive person. He wasn't very nice to the women around him. I don't like that very much”


Obviously anyone’s life story is not simple and trying to squeeze it into 90 minutes requires making some hard decisions. But I just wish Hollywood would have allowed us to watch a flawed character and allowed him to be flawed. Can’t we learn more about ourselves this way?

Maybe this would have been too serious for an audience to examine, or maybe it is of less importance today? As we see our first black president take office, many see Barack as the new role model. Obama is keeping it real. Perhaps the glorification a gangster rapper is slightly less appropriate now. Is the “Ready to Die” mentality still relevant or has it become “Ready to Live”?


In the lobby after the screening I ran into one of the guys from the block, my man Chico (of Junior Mafia). He lived at 232 St James. He was excited to greet me with a big hug. He had since moved to New Jersey and was plugging away at a rap career.

As I caught a whiff of the alcohol drifting from his paper cup and a large smile cracked his weathered face, I was taken back to the day of the funeral procession. The cars glided down St. James Place on that sad day and crowds clogged the sidewalks with excitement. After the hearse passed my window, I spotted Chico pop out of the top of a trailing limo. Chico excitedly threw his hands up in the air like an emcee on stage, the crowd roared! But quickly Chico dropped his head in shock and sadness, unsure how to play to this crowd. I think limbo best describes the uncomfortable place where the memory of Chris still lingers.