No greater love exists than being young and into the music that really captures who you are at that moment in your life. If you were living in Brooklyn during the early 1990s, that means you were having a mad affair with the man known as “Biggie Smalls,” a.k.a. Christopher Wallace.
What made Wallace’s rhyming skills so unique was the ease in which he could spin out a story that was always personal, funny and sincere. Yet, who knew he was a walking contradiction of urban swagger, mixed with being a former Catholic school honor student? Not even his own formidable mother, who worked hard in keeping the temptations offered by the street away from her son.
That is what makes “Notorious” such an interesting viewing experience. It is film that offers several moments of discovery, which surprisingly is also one of the motivating reasons why Wallace’s mother, Voletta, opted to allow the film to be made in the first place.
“I’ve heard so many stories, Ms. Wallace said. “I know of a Christopher Wallace, my son, I never knew Notorious B.I.G.. I never knew the rapper.”
In the years since Wallace’s still-unsolved murder, his life story was one that filmmakers and writers eagerly sought to bring forth as a film. Ms. Wallace turned most requests down, afraid of the prospect of their sensationalizing or censoring certain aspects of his life. After nearly a decade of negatives, she decided to take matters in her own hands, approaching Wallace’s former managers, Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts, to create their own project. The result is “Notorious.”
“I felt since there were so many projects, they assumed certain things about my son,” she added. “Why not have a mother come up with a project about the rapper, the son, the father, the entertainer, the icon that everybody spoke about?”
Most of the film shot on the very locations in Brooklyn and Los Angeles that were part of Wallace’s life and death. It was a process of revelation at times with Ms. Wallace admitting to having to balance her emotions during certain scenes while the film was in production.
“I’m finding about stories about this entertainer I never knew of,” Ms. Wallace continued. “There were days on the set I smiled, and there were days when I had to compose myself.”
Watching Voletta Wallace with Angela Bassett during the “Notorious” press interviews at the Legacy Recording Studios in New York, you immediately find yourself put at ease by her soft Jamaican accent and her gently open demeanor. But there is unmistakable strength in her voice. She is a woman who has beaten cancer twice. She is also a woman of faith. She raised her son alone. All combined, it is reason enough to see why she was able to get “Biggie” to morph back into “Chrissy Pooh” with a one word or a look. It is exactly that kind of strength that made her realize that only Angela Bassett could play her in “Notorious.”
“Believe it or not, she has a lot of my personality in her,” Ms. Wallace said. “I saw her in the Tina Turner role and how she fought back. That’s what Voletta would have done. When she decided to take the part, we had meetings and we got along great.”
It is surprising to note that Bassett was actually nervous once she became aware that Ms. Wallace only had her in mind for the film.
“I came to shake in my boots,” Bassett said. “They have an idea that you can really deliver what they see in their mind’s eye. So every day I was hoping that I was doing her justice.”
Once cameras started rolling, Ms. Wallace enjoyed watching Basset’s process in capturing her own persona.
“Angela had my accent down pat,” she said. “My daughter-in-law (Faith Evans), while hearing her speak, actually thought it was me.”
“She’s an amazing woman,” Bassett added. “Very generous, extremely courageous, a big heart. I’m honored.”
Following is a conversation with award-winning actress Angela Bassett and Voletta Wallace, who offer their perspectives into the making of “Notorious,” a new film about the life and death of iconic rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher Wallace’s life had all the big themes for someone who lived and died so young. Much of it was told through his music. Watching “Notorious,” I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a modern urban opera.
Angela: I like that. I think I’ll steal that from you, an urban opera. Yeah, larger than life. Passionate, poignant and tragic.
Why do you think the time was right to make a film out of his life?
Angela: It seems too soon? It’s been a decade!
Voletta: I didn’t forget. I never knew. During filming, there were a lot of tears. I guess I found, and I hoped and I prayed, it’s the truth about my son. But, I felt this was the time to do it. I’m not disappointed that I did this movie. I am glad I did it because I found out a lot. I guess I accepted a lot also. I don’t know how long I am going to feel this way.
It just seems a challenging prospect. So many members of his family, his contemporaries are still alive. Media interest still exists but then again, not every artist’s life warrants a film.
Voletta: They’ve seen the artist. They’ve seen the entertainer. What I want audiences to see is the father. I believe they saw that. I want them to see the love that he had for his friends. I wanted them to see the man, the son. But that man? God. (Laughs) There was a point where I wasn’t liking that person and he was my son. I loved him dearly. But I think Jamal (Woolard) played that man “Christopher.” That was the man I never knew. I learned something.
Angela: I guess you could know the history of the truth. Those who can still tell the truth of it or who know the facts of it, who know the incidents, they’re still here. If it took this amount of time to get them to open up and speak about it, if we waited too much longer, when they’re gone, then we’re just making it up.
Voletta: One of the characters in the film is Lil’ Kim. I would love to speak to her. Kim, for the record, I haven’t seen in years. The Kim that I knew was such a gorgeous, beautiful, human being. I met her; she was vulnerable, very sweet. I looked for that person and I saw her in the film. But in a way, I felt so bad for her. I have a few questions to ask her, which I will not ask here. That is between Lil’ Kim and myself. I really would like to speak to her.
Ms. Wallace has been quite candid in speaking about her son. As producer of the film, she has been a positive influence for the cast and filmmakers. Talk about meeting Ms. Wallace for the first time? How did that impact your approach in playing her in “Notorious?”
Angela: I felt particularly blessed that I got an opportunity to spend time with her, that she wanted me to portray her. She spent time in L.A. visiting her grandson and was open enough to invite me over. I’ve portrayed characters that have not wanted to meet or they’re particularly shy and protective. She’s very warm, open and generous of spirit so whichever way we want to play it, I can learn something from that. If you’re very closed off, well that’s telling and that’s who you are. But if you’re open and generous, that tells who you are and that’s what I want to portray. I’m open for whichever way they are most comfortable to go about it. And she was, “Let’s sit down on the couch.” Because of the nature of the story and how we know it ends, I chose not to be invasive. But just to be with you and whatever it is you feel most comfortable telling me or allowing me to see, then I am there for that. It didn’t take very long, maybe 20 minutes. Dinner and a glass of wine and we were there.
For those discovering Christopher Wallace for the first time, his life story is striking because of the harder and violent details that are juxtaposed with positive images too.
Angela: That’s the reason to tell it. That’s the good that you can find in it. You know Alex Haley would say, “Find the good and praise it.” In the context of the story and knowing the history and the mystery and the questions that still surround it, there’s still a positive message in it about youth and vitality and dreams and choosing who it is you really want to be with this life. A mother, a parent, deposits lessons and hopes. You’ll get them early and that you’ll hold them close but you know human nature is to want to explore. Some paths are worth exploring and some are not. Some are expensive to your soul, to your spirit, to your life. Here we sit doing what it is we enjoy and love doing and have a talent for doing. Fortunately I get the good in this story. [Christopher Wallace] got back to those first lessons, a respect that he wanted. He got back what the right way is to go about a life. You know what path he would have taken, which was the high road.
How does viewing “Notorious” change your own feelings about your son, Ms. Wallace? Did it make you feel closer to him?
Voletta: Do I feel closer to my son now? No. I have always been close to my son. It doesn’t take my love away from him. My love will always be the same. You don’t change love. It is what it is. But the man that I saw, he wasn’t mature enough. And I am just sorry he’s not here for me to slap him!
Artists like Wallace and Tupac Shakur remain iconic to people for many personal reasons. It is not just enjoying the beat or the images spun in their lyrics. What made hip-hop and rap such a powerful cultural force?
Angela: I don’t know why it’s a global. I think it’s youth. Remember growing up you heard from your elders. It was always for the youth to sit down somewhere and be quiet, to be seen and not heard. When you’re younger, you know 13, 14, 17, you have questions and you have desires. You’re just striving to be older, to be more mature. Yet you have no knowledge, you have immaturity but you have soul; just depth of feeling and poetry and an expression that you want to be heard. Everyone yearns to be heard. With hip-hop and rap they were. When it initially broke onto the scene, you didn’t think it would be around, but it’s stayed around. We’re still listening and there are more stories to tell. Every day of a life, there’s a story to tell.
Both of you are women of such strength. What is its source and how does that strength appear in the lives depicted in “Notorious?
Voletta: My strength comes from the Almighty, my family and my friends. My son was one of the most loving sons that one could have ever touched. He was funny; he had a beautiful sense of humor. Sometimes I want to scream because he’s not around, when I see his videos, when I hear his music, I look at his pictures, because they’re all over the house. Sometimes I want to scream, so I think of something he would say, something funny. Then I smile and I move on.
Angela: All you can do is hope in life that you can be honest about it, be free with it. That’s the nature of life and not all of us are courageous enough to tell it completely and fully. I always find that when you can tell the truth of it, the whole of it, the noble aspects of it along with the warts and the ugliness of it, it ends with the resilience of the human spirit. That is worth telling, to provoke you and do you some good.
Notorious DVD and BD – Out to buy June 22nd and pre-order now from www.play.com. To be in with a chance to win a copy of Notorious email your name, address and contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org
About Notorious Blu-ray and DVD
Both DVD and Blu-ray formats have the exciting addition of 6 featurettes and 10 deleted scenes. The Blu-ray disc has something extra special called the ‘Trivia Track’. The trivia track is a special feature that you need to activate whilst watching the film. Once activated, it displays information on whatever track you are listening to during Notorious. Viewers can create their own playlist of their chosen favourite songs and that playlist links to iTunes where you can then actually purchase the music. On top of that, the Blu-ray also has the addition of the ‘Life After Death: Making Notorious’ (45 mins) feature
To buy Notorious B.I.G’s music click here