Cameras are finally rolling on Notorious, the film that’s been on hold since 2007. The biopic of legendary hip-hop artist Christopher Wallace (aka Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls) went into production last week. A January 2009 release date is scheduled.
After a coast-to-coast search that began last summer, Fox Searchlight Pictures (a division of Twentieth Century Fox) cast Brooklyn-born rapper Jamal “Gravy” Woodard as the lead. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food and Men of Honor) will direct the film, which also stars Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, and Angela Bassett as Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace. Wallace serves as a producer of the film; and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, architect of Biggie’s career, will act as executive producer.
A film about the rapper’s life has been one of the industry’s most widely anticipated projects. Notorious takes advantage of the lingering fascination about the life and death of the New York rapper with a larger-than-life persona, heavyset physique, and music industry prowess, entertainment insiders say. “Biggie, for New Yorkers in particular, is a post-New Jack icon,” says Curtis Sherrod, co-founder and executive director of the Harlem-based Hip Hop Culture Center. “He had all of the right elements. He was an amazing storyteller, had amazing rhyme patterns, and his swagger was just ridiculous.”
Tillman is working with a script revised by Reggie Rock Bythewood (Biker Boyz) from an original draft by journalist Cheo Hodari Coker. The movie follows Biggie from his childhood and adolescence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and includes a history of drug dealing. It goes on to his explosive rap career in the 1990s until his tragic death at the hands of a gunman. Producers want the movie to be an anthem for the hip-hop generation. Major musical performances in the film feature Biggie’s recorded voice, though Woodard is expected to perform if no familiar recording exists.
While the actor chosen to play Biggie is not a box-office draw, the film stands to benefit from Bassett’s involvement, some critics say. Bassett, a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee, appears in Tyler Perry’s latest film Meet the Browns.
Notorious could also realize dividends with Tillman at the directorship alongside longtime producing partner Bob Teitel. The duo has previously experienced box-office success: SoulFood, which was modestly budgeted at $7.5 million and grossed $43.5 million domestically; and Men of Honor, which earned $82 million worldwide.
The untimely deaths of young celebrities appear to intrigue moviegoers. Hollywood covered the life of Biggie’s West Coast rival, the late Tupac Shakur, in the 2003 MTV Films production Tupac: Resurrection. The film received an Oscar nomination for best documentary and earned a respectable $7.7 million at the box office, placing it at No. 11 on Box Office Mojo’s list of top-performing documentaries.
Searchlight is best known as a perennial Oscar contender, with films such as Juno and Sideways and African American films such as I Think I Love My Wife, directed by Chris Rock.
George Alexander’s column on the business of entertainment appears weekly at blackenterprise.com. He is the author of “Why