Christopher Wallace was a rapper—maybe one of the best, and best-known, rappers the world's ever known. Because while you might not know the name Christopher Wallace, you've almost certainly encountered the monikers Big Poppa or Biggie Smalls or Biggie or The Notorious B.I.G.
None of Christopher's childhood friends could've imagined he'd make a name for himself in music. Back then, his protective mom, Voletta, called him Chrissy-Poo. And he attended a Catholic middle school in Brooklyn, bringing home A after A after A.
But those scholastic awards weren't enough for Christopher. He was a hard-core capitalist at heart, and he suspected that his neighbors, with their gold chains and white sneakers and oh-so-self-assured gait, were involved in a lucrative, albeit illegal, business: selling crack. So it wasn't long before Chris joined the neighborhood co-op.
Mom promptly kicks Chrissy-Poo out of their apartment. And he gets arrested and jailed shortly thereafter, giving him ample opportunity to work on his hobby: rapping. By the time he leaves prison, Chris totes some tight rhymes and his very own street-cred rap sheet. Oh, and forget that Christopher Wallace stuff, he tells his friends. Just call me Biggie from now on.
The makers of Notorious appear to believe that Biggie's story is, on some level, inspirational: the tale of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who transformed his talent into mega-success and, in the end, turned out to be a fairly decent human being.
Biggie was indeed a talented guy. But for me, the story's real inspiration is Voletta, Biggie's much-suffering mother. She walks young Chris to and from school, keeping him as safe as she can from the 'hood's influence, and she praises him for his scholastic achievements. When she learns that he's selling drugs, tough love—and a bit of temper—compels her to kick him out. Years later, when they have a family dinner together, Voletta gently tells her son and his posse not to swear in front of Biggie's son. Throughout all of Biggie's ups and downs, Voletta still loves her Chrissy-Poo. She is Biggie's moral compass—even if he doesn't follow where she points most of the time.
"In the beginning," Biggie narrates at, well, the beginning, "God gave me a clean slate. But I knew where I grew up, I couldn't stay clean."
Notorious is, in some way, constructed to focus on the struggle over one man's soul—that of Biggie Smalls himself. Though he raps early on about how he'd be more comfortable in hell than in heaven, others suggest he was meant for more. Voletta tells him not to make fun of prayer time. After he's arrested and asks his mother to pray for him, she tells him she never stopped, "But you've got to stop wasting God's time and pray for yourself." Later, when a friend of his gets out of jail, he tells Biggie that sitting around prison gives you lots of time to think about important things—like God.
Some of these messages begin to sink in—a little. When Biggie's friends and family have dinner at Voletta's house, he volunteers to say the mealtime prayer, and he eventually gets Psalm 23 tattooed on his arm.
Biggie's funeral takes place at a church, and Voletta is shown clutching a Bible.
Note: The following three conquests do not constitute the entirety of Biggie's "experience" with women.
1) We hear that Jan got pregnant with Chris' baby—a daughter born while he is in prison.
2) Biggie converts one-time department store worker Lil' Kim to the rapper way of life. They meet on the street and, shortly thereafter, have sex. The scene includes graphic nudity, explicit movement and an apparent climax. "You seeing anyone?" she asks when it's over. Later, Kim pulls underwear over her bare backside. Still later, she showcases for Biggie a slinky stage outfit, complete with short skirt and suspenders. It isn't revealing enough for his taste, so he suggests she keep the suspenders and lose the shirt. She takes him up on it—as the camera watches. Another of her costumes is equally outrageous, as are her sexual lyrics.
3) Biggie finally settles down, as it were, with R&B singer Faith Evans, whom he marries three weeks after they meet. (In real life it was nine days.) Biggie hesitates during the ceremony when the justice of the peace asks him if he's ready to pledge his undying fidelity, and Faith gives him an out if he doesn't feel he's ready. But he does make the promise—which he promptly breaks. Biggie and Faith kiss sloppily several times, and the camera makes sure we see the tattoo emblazoned on the upper part of one of Faith's breasts. A picture of Faith and rival rapper Tupac Shakur surfaces on a music magazine cover, and Tupac claims that he and Faith slept together. Faith walks in on Biggie and another woman: Biggie's apparently nude underneath bed sheets and the woman is wrapped in a bathrobe.
Dozens of scantily clad women want to spend time with Biggie, and several get cozy with him during a recording session. (Biggie says he needs them for inspiration.) One of them is topless, and we hear Biggie's pants being unzipped.
Banter between Biggie and his posse is often sexually charged. And it's not just Lil' Kim's lyrics that peg the raunch meter.
Much of Notorious revolves around the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry, spearheaded by Biggie and Tupac. The movie tells us that their friendship fractured after Tupac was shot and robbed outside Biggie's New York studio. (We hear the gunshots and the shouting; we see Tupac's bleeding body.) Tupac recovers from this assault, only to be murdered in Las Vegas. (We see television news footage of the aftermath.)
Biggie's own murder is more explicit. Notorious shows moviegoers the killing from Biggie's point of view—he sees a blur of his assailant before the bullet hits him—and then, later, we see Biggie slump down.
Biggie's world of gangsta rap is a violent one, and no holds are barred here. Many of the lyrics we hear are filled with threats, boasts and vicious imagery. Biggie seriously scares Lil' Kim and Faith at times. He never hurts them, but he certainly intimidates them through his bulk and anger and penchant for throwing things. Faith beats up a woman Biggie was apparently sleeping with (though he denies it). During a concert, background dancers stage a massive fight.
Biggie always seems to tote a gun, and he once gets arrested for doing so. (One of his buddies takes the rap for him.) Voletta slaps Biggie across the face. Faith hits him in the chest several times. A car crash shatters Biggie's leg.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters say the f-word at least 165 times. Now, if you're thinking to yourself, "Well, if its just 165, that's OK, but 166 would be too much," then let me tell you this: My count is likely low. The film's backing soundtrack consists almost entirely of profane rap tracks, which means a pile of other major profanities probably slipped by while I was tuned in to the dialogue. Additionally, characters interject the s-word close to 100 times and the n-word at least 50 times. Biggie tells his preschool daughter that she should never let anyone call her a "b--ch"—the one piece of advice, it seems, he bothered to pass on to her.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Biggie sells lots of cocaine, including some to a pregnant woman. The movie never says whether he actually uses his own merchandise, but he often smokes marijuana. He and his posse are shown toking quite a bit (a bong is seen in the foreground at one juncture), and during one recording session Biggie requests more "weed." One of Biggie's cohorts says he's looking forward to visiting with Tupac because Tupac always seems to have high-quality marijuana on him.
Biggie has a fondness for cigars. And alcohol flows freely, both during recording sessions and parties. Biggie and his buddies drink beer and champagne, and liquor bottles often seem to serve a decorative function in the recording studio.
Other Negative Elements
The seven deadly sins play a big role in Biggie's life. Sloth isn't his weakness, but lust, wrath, pride and greed certainly are. "I got addicted to money after my first sale," he tells us of his drug trade. And he only quits dealing after manager Sean "Puffy" Combs promises him that "by the time you're 21, I'll make you a millionaire." Biggie mocks his teachers, lies to his mother, treats women with extreme disrespect and, for a good long while, doesn't visit his daughter.
Christopher Wallace was gunned down by an unknown assailant on March 9, 1997. The movie suggests that, before his death, the rapper was on his way to redemption: Sure, he had made some missteps—the most egregious, from the film's perspective, was not visiting his daughter—but his priorities were in better order, and he was ready to make his mother proud of him.
Don't believe it.
Much of the case for his turnaround is built on the back of Biggie's second album (named, eerily, Life After Death and released three weeks after he was killed), which is presented here as a redemptive work. We're to think that it's something reflective of Biggie's newfound interest in God and his manager's insistence that "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves." Yet, according to Rolling Stone, the release is "a sprawling, cinematic saga of the thug life" and features Biggie in the role of a Scarface-like drug kingpin.
Our own music review concludes with this: "Debuting at No. 1, this posthumous double disc by Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls) sold nearly 700,000 copies its first week and more than 6 million overall. Life After Death provides a sleazy epitaph to his sad, depraved, squandered existence."
The film tells us that Biggie was horrified by Tupac's death. But while the provable truth will likely never be established, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2002 that Biggie paid gang members $1 million to murder his rival—and supplied the gun to do the deed, too.
But what if we take the film at face value? Can we then accept Biggie as a flawed but ultimately inspirational figure? Not really. Biggie, in his own way, makes the same mistake many of us do: He tells himself that he's a good person because he does the occasional good thing. We're supposed to give him a pass on his illicit lifestyle and thuggish raps because—well, because people like those raps, and because he eventually decides to visit his daughter.
Notorious wants to tell us that B.I.G. eventually went from being a bad man to a man who thought himself good enough. But all we really see is bling and bang emboldened by value-menu ethics.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jamal Woolard as Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace; Angela Bassett as Voletta Wallace; Derek Luke as Sean 'Puffy' Combs; Dennis L.A. White as Damion 'D-Roc' Butler; Antonique Smith as Faith Evans; Naturi Naughton as Lil' Kim
George Tillman Jr. ( )