His mother called him “Chrissy Pooh.” Fans around the world referred to him as “Biggie Smalls.” The women in his life loved him as “Big Poppa.” They all added up to define one man: Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G. Despite the brevity of his life and career, Wallace’s was a life that was tailor made for a major motion picture.
In the decade since his murder, his mother, Voletta Wallace, and former managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts turned down several offers to bring the rapper’s vivid life to the screen. As the producers of “Notorious,” they worked closely with director George Tillman, Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker in crafting a vision that not only honors the icon but reveals more of the man behind the swagger and largesse projected through his songs.
“People listen to his music and that’s what they know but that’s not the only thing we wanted people to walk away from with this movie,” Barrow said of the film. “We wanted audiences to walk away with a picture of exactly what Ms. Wallace raised her son to be: Christopher Wallace, the man.”
With many of the men and women who were part of Wallace’s life still alive, one of the principal challenges faced by the project was in getting the details right. It is no coincidence that Coker would co-write the “Notorious” screenplay. A contributor to such magazines as Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times and VIBE, Coker would bear the distinction of being the last person to interview Wallace, talking to the rapper at length the night before his murder.
Guided by several hours of interviews with Wallace during his recording life, Coker also spoke at length to Ms. Wallace, Barrow and Pitts, the filmmakers involved James “Lil Cease” Lloyd, DJ Enuff, DJ Mister Cee, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Damien “D-Roc” Butler. The first incarnation of this material would comprise his book, “Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.”
With pages of material to work from, Coker would collaborate with writer Reggie Rock Bythewood in further shaping up “Notorious” the film. Bythewood, whose credits include the screenplay for Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” sought to deepen the humanity of Wallace’s multi-layered persona.
“I wanted to go against the grain of what is usually looked at when you make a movie about somebody’s life,” Bythewood said. “The questions I wanted to ask were: what were his flaws as a human being? How did all that feed into his music and the choices that he made?”
In watching “Notorious,” it quickly becomes apparent that the women in his life had the challenging task of balancing the many sides of Wallace. Ms. Wallace, who remains firmly committed to preserving the integrity of her son, has said that working on the film was a process of discovery for her about who he really was. The movie does engage audiences with images of his life at home as a boy and his musical evolution. However, it is the depiction of his complex relationships with singer Faith Evans and rapper Kimberly Jones, a.k.a. Lil’ Kim, that offers the most volatile and poignant elements in Notorious.”
The first female artist signed to Bad Boy Records by Sean Combs in 1994, the award-winning Evans first met Wallace at a photo shoot. Marrying nine days later, their often-turbulent relationship would be undermined by Wallace’s infidelity. After a separation, they reunited, with Evans giving birth to their son, Christopher Jr., who also appears in the film as his father as a young boy. Five months after his birth, Wallace was killed in a drive-by shooting after a party in Los Angeles.
“It’s just surreal,” Evans said about watching their lives unfold as a film. “I’m really proud. Even seeing the trailer, I get misty-eyed. But it’s a beautiful thing. It shows how much he really meant to people.”
Wallace’s involvement with Jones grew from a long-standing and close friendship that led to his mentoring the young rapper, who first started out as part of his Junior M.A.F.I.A. team. Once striking out on her own, Jones’s controversial artistic life as Lil’ Kim would not only lead to Grammy-winning success but forge an iconic status that still garners headlines today.
For the two young actresses making their film debuts in “Notorious” as Evans and Jones, the challenges were present just by reading the pages of the script. In addition to acting the roles, Antonique Smith and Naturi Naughton would also have to depict the musical lives of both women.
Their parallels are something out of fiction. Both hail from East Orange, New Jersey and both succeeded first with starring roles on Broadway, with Smith in “Rent” and Naughton in “Hairspray.” Their combined perspectives into “Notorious” made for an energetic interview. Watching their interaction brought out the similarities to the personas of the women to depict in the film. Smith’s own natural grace proved a winning foil for Naughton’s own unbridled energy, busting out a version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” for added measure at one point in the interview.
Already a fan of Evans’s heartfelt and raw vocal performances, Smith was fortunate to talk intimately with the singer/author to further define her representation on film. Tapping into the spirit and the emotional life of Evans was aided further by Smith’s own memories of how the singer’s music, and that of Wallace’s, affected her own life.
“When I first read the script,” Smith said, “it brought back so many memories,” Smith said. “It was a little overwhelming.”
While the film presents both Evans and Jones as the most important loves of his life, only Evans opted to cooperate with the project. That left Naughton relying on archival materials and Coker’s book to help her prepare to go from Kimberly Jones to Lil’ Kim.
As production began she remained acutely aware of how she would judged on several fronts.
“People are definitely looking to see, ‘Okay, does she roll?” Naughton said. “Does she rhyme? Can she capture the essence of [Kim]? It was a challenge to either feed into what the fans and other people want, or just tell the story.”
In the days leading to the U.S. release of “Notorious,” a certain irony arose in that Wallace’s life continued to touch a strong nerve with the people who knew him. Lil’ Kim became extremely vocal about her dissatisfaction with the project, which caught the attention of a rapt media. Acknowledging that she had not seen the film, only an early draft of the screenplay, Lil’ Kim’s fired one urgent salvo in a statement published by the Associated Press on January 13th:
“The film studio and producers involved were more concerned about painting me as a ‘character’ to create a more interesting story line instead of a person with talent, self-respect and who was able to achieve her own career success through hard work.”
The rapper went on to add: “Even though my relationship with Big was at times very difficult and complicated (as with most relationships we have all experienced at one time or another), it was also genuine and built on great admiration and love for each other. Regardless of the many lies in the movie and false portrayal of me to help carry a story line through, I will still continue to carry his legacy through my hard work and music.”
The AP also quoted Voletta Wallace in the same article, addressing Lil Kim’s criticisms of the movie:
“This is not a Lil’ Kim movie,” she stated. “This is a Christopher Wallace movie. It has nothing to do with Lil’ Kim. If she’s disappointed and upset, that is her problem.”
At the January 7th premiere of “Notorious” in New York, screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker commented to AP on how Lil’ Kim could take issue with her depiction in the film.
“I think that Naturi (Naughton) did a great job playing Kim. I think people are going to be a lot more sympathetic towards (Lil’ Kim) after seeing the movie.”
Following is a continuing look at the show known as “Notorious” with two of its leading ladies offering a spirited look into their experiences of being part of the project.
What sets “Notorious” apart from other film’s that have chronicled the life of a famous musical artist?
Naturi: This man’s life influenced so many people then and now. It was 10 years ago when he passed and he still impacts today’s music. It’s so important to show people that he had a dream. Coming out of Brooklyn, dealing with some of the issues around him, his environment with drugs and jail. He could have stayed on that route. If it had not been for wanting something more and being inspired, and having people in his life like his mom and Puffy who believed in him, he may not have made it. It’s good to show that you can turn it around and use some of those experiences, which he did. He used his negative experiences and put it into his music.
So much has changed in the world of hip-hop and rap since the advent of the Notorious B.I.G. Why do you think it remains relevant for subsequence generations?
ANTONIQUE SMITH: He started, I wouldn’t call it a trend, but I mean, all the guys from Brooklyn who were able to come out. I mean, come on! Jay-Z. It’s crazy to think Biggie and Jay-Z would have been together now at the top. It’s really sad that he’s not there. He’s still totally relevant.
Antonique, talk about your first experience in meeting Ms. Wallace and Jamal Woolard.
Antonique: When I walked into my first audition, Ms. Wallace said, “That’s Faith!” I was in my head thinking, “Oh my God! Does that mean I’m going to get it?” I got it, so thank you Ms. Wallace! Right after I left, I met Gravy (Jamal Woolard) on the elevator and he looked at me and he said, “You gonna be Fay Fay?” I was like, “Yeah, Biggie.”
The women you both portray are still alive today and still making artistic contributions on their own. How daunting was the responsibility of portraying Faith and Kim accurately?
Antonique: It was very challenging because Faith said all she really wanted for me was just to be honest. That’s what I really wanted to do. It was a happy time and it was also a painful time throughout for her. It was important for me to really sink my teeth into the emotion of her. It was so much. Talking to Faith was so nice to be able to do because you literally got first hand information. There’s fun in creating some stuff but there’s also ease in knowing that somebody can just tell you, “This is how I felt. This is what was going through my mind.” That actually made it a little easier.
Naturi: Lil’ Kim is definitely a fearless, sexy, over the top character. There are a few scenes that I had to mentally and emotionally prepare for. Physically, I had to get in the gym. My body has to be right ‘cause Kim don’t play. It was so different from my previous work or even my personality. I’m not a rapper. Little did I know I had a hidden talent. I was really started to love it a little bit. Lil’ Kim is a hip-hop, rap icon. She has a huge fan base. Many people expect certain things and they want to see that persona that they fell in love with. But, they don’t understand Lil’ Kim at one point was a younger woman. She was in love with Biggie. She was vulnerable, she was manipulated. Her image was created over time. She didn’t just come out that way and it’s so good to show that progression.
There are three different men that can be found within the person that is Christopher Wallace. Talk about how Jamal Woolard handled that extraordinary task of being the Notorious B.I.G. and which of his many personas did you respond to as women?
Naturi: He is amazing.
Antonique: He was incredible.
Naturi: He captured every point I think that mentally Biggie was at, each time.
Antonique: He really was Biggie to me. You watched “Ray” and you really thought that Jamie Foxx was Ray. You got lost in it. I really got lost in watching [Jamal].
Naturi: It’s hard to answer that question though because it’s hard to know which stage I liked best.
Antonique: Yes, I don’t know.
Naturi: Because there are points where for Kim, I kind of liked him when he was still kicking it with me, before he got [to be] “Notorious” and wanted the different life. I feel like I was left behind. When he was coming up in Brooklyn, we had a closer connection and we had that relationship somewhat intact. It’s hard because he was different at different points, but I think I would go for the man who was mature and respected his family, the man who wanted to do right by his wife, his children.
Antonique: He was born Christopher Wallace. He went through the journey of being “Smalls” and “Notorious” and I think he died Christopher Wallace.
At times, it is painful to watch how Faith and Kim endured the choices Wallace made during his relationships with both women. Do you think this film is a flattering image?
Antonique: It was his truth. I don’t know if you can sugar coat it.
Naturi: I think at first people might be taken aback, confused, surprised. It’s important to open up your mind. Give it a chance. Understand that everybody starts somewhere and just grows.
Antonique: You get to be a fly on the wall for the whole journey of his life.
What are your hopes for “Notorious?”
Naturi: It captures so much of what people wanted to say of their experiences growing up, especially for the urban community. He was kind of speaking for all of us, like D-Roc, who says in the movie, “If you make it, we all make it.” That’s such an important line. When people talk about Biggie, they feel like they have a piece of his success to hold.
Antonique: We are a part of his legacy. I hope that Mrs. Wallace and Faith feel like it’s a keepsake, like another piece of him they have for the rest of their lives.
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