REVIEW: NOTORIOUS (2009)
By Steven Barnes
Monday, February 2, 2009.
I loved this biopic of the rapper Biggie Smalls, and not just because it was released by Fox Searchlight, with whom I do business, or stars Angela Bassett, who is a dear friend. It is because it sees the evolution of rap, and the life of this one talented, doomed artist, through a philosophical lens I agree with.
Its main theme is that Christopher Wallace, the man-child who soared to fame as "The Notorious B.IG." was a boy playing with man-sized toys, denied access to full maturity due to lack of a father. He plays with sex rather than forming lasting relationships, he encourages women he cares about to behave like total whores, he postures about violence and criminality and then acts surprised when it manifests in his life. He does not take responsibility for the children he makes, even when his mother (Bassett) begs him to "be a great father." But Biggie only met his real father one time. How in the hell was he supposed to figure this stuff out?
Statistics show that the single thing most likely to help a child stay out of jail, off the streets, and finish school is an intact two-parent family. Only at the very end of his life did he have a glimmer of insight about this, begin speaking of real emotional issues and not just posturing.
But I cannot blame these kids for making money where they can. I can say that they are betraying their true artistic impulse by not actually accessing their pain, fear, and joy to create song and story. Some of them do - my sense is that Tupac was trying. Eminem does. Most do not. But Christ, Biggie was only what...? Twenty-something when he died? Hardly time to figure anything out. And no, I don't think it's just the diminished roar of the glands that makes the difference. It's watching your friends die; watching your own daughter acting like the disposable hootchies in your music videos.
If the movie is accurate (and Li'l Kim says it is not), I felt so sorry for her. Kim loved Biggie, and at his urging, turned herself inside-out to create financial success. Acting like a total whore on-stage, dressing like a prostitute, bragging about how sexually available you are, and how many men you've had...and then being surprised when the man you love chooses another, more discreet and "ladylike" woman, suggests that she didn't understand a basic rule: men screw women who are "out there" with their sexuality, but get serious about women they'd want their own daughters to grow up to be.
In this column, we've discussed sex in movies, and it is clear that there are some who cannot see the difference between a PG-13 love scene and the disgrace of "Monster's Ball." That's like saying that there's no difference between building a fire in your hearth and burning down your house.
If "Notorious" is accurate, you have boys who think making money any way they can: selling drugs to pregnant women, glorifying violent death and crime and so forth, makes them men. That having unprotected sex with multiple partners and encouraging them to act in ways that keeps you from opening your heart to them makes you a man. There is a terrible scene where Kim screams publicly about Biggie performing oral sex on her, then in the next moment crying and asking what he sees in his more refined wife that he doesn't see in her. Heart-breaking. And by the time he figured out the problem, his life was over.
This is the clear sign of children whose fathers and mothers weren't mature and caring enough to be there for them. Now, given my own history, it would be impossible for me to think anything else: my own father's absence left a hole in my heart, and when my first marriage dissolved, I gave up my career in Hollywood to father my daughter. That's who I am, and that's the way I see the world. Period.
If you make children, YOU TAKE CARE OF THEM. Period. And that means that you'd better be careful about the people you have sex with, because unless you're just going down on each other, guess what, you might be making babies. And if you do, saying "oops" doesn't cut it.
And the emotional damage cascades from one generation to the next.
Yes, I hold the black community directly responsible for fixing this. But I don't suggest that they did the original damage to themselves. The problem is that if you were beaten as a child, and are now 40 years old, the perps are long gone and you have the responsibility of dealing with the limp.
I'm sure that Sean "P Diddy" Combs, who executive produced, let himself off the hook a bit. That there is more to say about the negative aspects of his interactions with his artists, and fans. I doubt Suge Knight is the only problem in Rap. But "Notorious" is one man-child's tragic story. And it is a primary example of why I think that images of sexuality are important in film.
The question young people, especially young men, ask themselves is: how do I get laid? If they don't see examples of people being attracted to each other, courting, falling in love, having sex, getting married, raising families, making an honest living, facing life together and facing death with dignity, the entire sweep of the human experience. What happens is that they step off the path that actually leads to adulthood, and measure their man or womanhood in the numbers of sexual conquests, or the amount of money they make, or heads they've broken.
Kids went into boxing gyms trying to be Ali, into martial arts schools trying to act like Bruce Lee, young writers who imitate Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Ernest Hemingway or Harlan Ellison...hell, little boys and girls who imitate their mothers and fathers...this is what human beings do. There is no faster way of improving skill than imitating the actions of those who are better than they are.
Two days until the world shifts, just a little. I saw a cartoon of a little black child watching Obama sworn in, raising his own hand as he does. This is truth. Role models are vital, and for most people, the more someone resembles them, the easier it is to model their success. I've lost track of the number of black men who have already said to me that "If Obama can be President, I have to step up my game." They have to expect more from themselves. Give up their excuses.
In Obama, we have an example of a black man who made it all the way to the top as the most powerful man in the entire universe. There is nothing higher on the hierarchy. That's it!
He is college educated, married to the mother of his children, and his wife is a powerful beautiful woman who speaks her mind. He is athletic and intellectual. By my standards, he is the healthiest, most balanced President I've ever heard of. Will that make him a good President? God, I hope so, but I've made it clear that I don't know shit about politics. I know a little about human beings. However, I sure hope it translates.
Young black men and women may now know that all that glitters is not gold. Christopher Wallace fell directly into the trap of not having a good role model, and it is a trap that leads to death and destruction rather than maturity. I would give "Notorious" a "B+".
Steven Barnes is a best-selling novelist, television writer and art critic. His latest book, Great Sky Woman, is now on sale at Amazon. He blogs as Darkush.
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