Jan 12, 2009

On Notorious

I’m not going to bother with narrative recaps; if you know (or care) what happened on March 9th, 1997 in Los Angeles to a certain famous hip-hop artist, you probably know most of the important details that make up the narrative of the film I’m about to review. Let’s just hope he really was Ready to Die and be thankful that the ensuing film was slightly more satisfying than Hustle and Flow.

Keeping biopics of tragic public figures hopeful and reverent, especially one about a hip-hop musician who met with such a swift rise and violent end as Christopher Wallace (aka Notorious B.I.G.), is always a troubling proposition and in the case of George Tillman Jr.’s largely compromised but never less than fascinating Notorious, its one that pretty much sinks the entire enterprise. Tillman (Soul Food, Men of Honor), aided and abetted by a slew of producers who knew, loved and/or profited from the title character and thus have no desire to go myth busting, can’t help but embrace nearly every rote cliché of the “troubled slum kid makes good” and the “drug addled (drug dealing) womanizer but essentially good natured talent struck down before his time” narratives and as a result his film goes down like New Hampshire maple syrup, all sugary, natural seeming goodness, but with nearly no nutritional value. No matter how much crack Biggie Smalls sells, how many woman he fucks and abandons, we’ll love him anyway and he’ll tell us all about his struggles (and thus give us access to his humanity) in those terrific songs. With music like this, who needs that heavy-handed Danny Elfman score the movie also contains?

That Christopher Wallace’s actual life and worldview were in fact tailor made for such reductive, simplistic tales, the ones that Hollywood knows how to make in its sleep, is beside the point; this whole enterprise is about pride, prestige and cheese (the green kind) if not outright historical revisionism. Fox Searchlight, the indie subsidiary that probably hoped they had Oscar gold on their hands with this “inspirational” urban fairy tale, just as the folks behind 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ guessed that their less tragic, hip-hop coming of age narratives were ready for legit award season campaigns in years gone by, choose to dump it on the third weekend of January and run with The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire instead, figuring populist Negro and teenage, hip-hop obsessed white audiences (both of whom only seem to get feted in the January/February dumping season anyways, but that’s a whole other piece) will come out in droves.

Wallace’s story is a bit of a slum cliché, but one that probably wouldn’t have much currency if it weren’t so remarkably familiar to anyone who’s seen first hand the ghetto ideology of rogue, nihilistic drug fueled capitalism that has menaced middle and working class Black communities in nearly every large and medium size city in this country, fueled by the helplessness that overtook these neighborhoods as unskilled ex-agricultural workers, mainly southern and Caribbean immigrant Blacks, moved to dying industrial centers from the late 40s into the early 80s looking for work that increasingly didn’t exist anymore.

Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn, where I live these days and where in the year of my birth ten year old Chris (played by the late rapper’s actual son Christopher Jordan who later gives way to thirty-something unknown Brooklyn rapper Jamal Woolard, the quintessential limited, one note performer) escaped the torment of being an overweight child abandoned by his father through his hip-hop enthusiasm, rocking headphones as he sits listlessly on his building’s stairwell consuming the jams of DJ Marley Marl and Slick Rick, is a place that exemplifies these trends. Like so many youth in my current zip code, the lure of easy money proves too much, too quickly; Chris begins dealing crack (in front of the Fad Albert’s on Broadway no less!) in the second half of the first Bush administration, but after a brief stint in jail and the birth of his first child, Chris tries his hand at rapping. Pretty soon his demo draws the attention of an ambitious young producer and promoter (Derek Luke gets the honor of portraying the film’s executive producer and the picture’s voice of personal growth/moral reasoning in a truly astounding, sickening performance – “we gonna change the world Big, but first, we gotta change ourselves”) and the rest is history.

Okay, so everybody and their mama (especially Biggie’s mama, Voletta Wallace, who co-produced the movie and is played in the film by the luminous but confused Angela Bassett, sporting an altogether odd Jaimerican accent) knew this wasn’t going to be another Last Days, but the level to which the filmmakers stoop in order to provide an accessible and emotionally manipulative look at a very talented and very unfortunate young man is a major disappointment. Significant players in Biggie’s narrative, be it his hero turned friend turned rival TuPac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) or his Bad Boy label mates and dueling love interests Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) are more than ciphers but less lived in by their performers and they ought to be; Tillman never really makes us feel like they exist outside of Biggie’s orbit, that Pac had any real reason to believe Biggie conspired to have him killed or, in the case of the women, why they find him attractive. Of course, Suge Knight, as in Nick Broomfield’s documentary Biggie and Tupac (2002) makes an easy fall guy, stoking the flames of the East coast (Bad Boy) versus West coast (Knight’s Death Row Records) rivalry that is credited with both shooting deaths. The winners do indeed get to write history. I saw Puffy (wait, Diddy) on the Golden Globes telecast last night, but Suge Knight is most likely struggling to cover his Rosco’s chicken and waffles bill.

As the film draws to a close Biggie, in “generating cinematic tragedy 101” fashion, proves what a good guy he is, realizing the faults in his ways. He makes good with everyone he’s fucked over before he dies. This includes his first girlfriend, overweight and dark brown with nappy hair, she’s the jilted mother of his largely ignored child. That he left her for a thinner, lighter skinned woman, whom he then left for a prettier, even lighter skinned woman, whom he then cheated on with a blonde haired white woman (who, in the film’s only legitimately gruesome scene of violence, is beaten up by Faith Evans after she catches Biggie in the act) is never explored as a symptom of the sexual neurosis the darker than midnight Wallace probably suffered from.

I could also discuss how pedestrian Tillman is as a director, but it too is beside the point. With this group of people calling the shots, Paul Thomas Anderson would have struggled to make something revelatory out of this promising and all too sad tale.

The mid 90s was a heady time for the assimilative forces of popular culture, one that could make a hero of a man like Christopher Wallace and gather the collective hopes of beleaguered Black America behind the fortunes of criminals of the street and the country club (OJ anyone...) – one shouldn’t be surprised that Notorious has zero perspective on all of this, but I’ll remain a little melancholy anyway.