“Yes, he burned a lot of people along the way,” said Voletta Wallace, of her son, rapper Christopher Wallace, aka NOTORIOUS B.I.G., to the crowd assembled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Brooklyn premiere of Notorious on January 8.
“And I’m sure you’ve heard of a gorgeous little artist out there, her name is Ms. Jones. She is very proud right now, but the actress Naturi Naughton who isn’t here tonight, did her justice.”
Ms. Wallace, along with the cast, director, and writers of Notorious, which she co-produced, was speaking to a captivated Brooklyn audience about the process of making the biopic of her son, which comes out this Friday January 16. She was referring to the brewing storm over whether Ms. Naughton’s portrayal of rapper Lil’ Kim was accurate.
In a statement, Lil’ Kim told the associated press on January 13: “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.”
But the conflict hardly made news among those who had just seen the first public screening of the film, based on the life of one of Brooklyn’s darling sons, tragically cut short at age 24. The feud is the media’s script, not of the people, reflecting one of the major story lines in Notorious: the media’s polarization of Biggie’s feud with west coast rival Tupac Shakur.
However, rather than reflect what fans and critics alike already knew about the icon, Ms. Wallace went in a different direction.
“The reason why I made this film was as an artist, as a poet, as a rapper, as a singer you all knew him,” she said. “But you never knew my son, you never knew T’yanna or C.J.’s father, so I wanted you all to see that man.”
And see him you will.
“When [director] George Tillman came into the process he asked me in our first meeting what the movie was about,” said Reggie Rock Blythewood, a writer on the film. “And we talked about this movie being a hip hop version of [the 1965 film] Manchild in the Promised Land, and I think he embraced that.”
A similar story, based on a book by Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land tells the author’s coming of age story among the poverty and violence of 1940s and 1950s Harlem. “I wanted it to really be a movie about somebody who was looking to define manhood,” said Mr. Blythewood.
The film begins with a young Christopher Wallace, portrayed by his now twelve year old son Christopher Jordan Wallace, as a Catholic school student close with his mother and abandoned by his father.
“The only difficulty I had with the part was making myself cry and I did that by thinking about him and how it would be if he were here and it wasn’t that difficult,” C.J. Wallace told the fawning crowd. “So I got through that.”
The film was shot in Bedford Stuyvesant and through Biggie’s rise on these streets and later on the charts, we see a charming and funny Christopher Wallace, a disparate contrast to the icon whose verses were often combative and derogatory. Jamal Woolard brings to life the story of a man who’s energy brought people together, whose rap rivalry became a source of devastation, and who struggled to be a good father and faithful husband.
“The lovingness of Big comes through, and why everybody just was magnetized towards him,” said Faith Evans, the singer whom Biggie married and had his only son. “You know, he was a beautiful person and that’s way aside from his music. I think that when it’s all said and done, that means more than anything.”
But to portray Christopher Wallace through the eyes of only those who loved him, especially his mother, might of, as producer Wayne Barrow said, gotten us a Disney movie.
“Beyond what she could see, he became another man and that man was something she has no clue about,” Mr. Barrow continued. “So those individuals around him and the women that were there in his life, Faith, Kim, and all the other women that on the side. For me it was just about making sure that all these pieces in the puzzle were unique and dynamic and strong.”
And Ms. Wallace admits there were many things she didn’t know about her son’s life.
“I never knew about some of the things he did until I did the research. So I know you’re here tonight, and I also hope that many young men and young girls who are here and want to be an entertainer, want to be something out there, you might be doing something out there that your mother or your father or parents don’t know. Stop it,” she said to a burst of laughter.
Though in jest, it seemed her message, to all communities but especially her own, was to say, let’s learn from the mistakes and struggles of Christopher Wallace, because despite the violence surrounding his life and career, he was a man; he was somebody. And that should be the legacy Christopher Wallace leaves behind.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson was there to attest to it.
“It was awesome,” he said, as he shuffled out of the theater.