Film Skirts Loose Ends in Death of a Rapper
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
LOS ANGELES — Less than an hour into Sunday, March 9, 1997, a Chevrolet Impala pulled alongside an S.U.V. carrying the hip-hop star Christopher G. Wallace http://topics.nytimes.com/top/refere...inline=nyt-per, known as the Notorious B.I.G., in the Mid-Wilshire District here. Someone in it shot Mr. Wallace dead with a 9-millimeter pistol. And gangsta rap had its defining moment.
Next week a movie crew working for Fox Searchlight Pictures will tackle the formidable task of making sense of it all.
In Brooklyn next Monday the studio is expected to begin shooting “Notorious,” a film biography of Mr. Wallace who, when he died at 24, was the champion of East Coast rap whose rivalry with the West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, shot to death six months earlier, helped drive an ugly East-West feud.
No one has been charged with either killing, and the death of Mr. Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls, remains the subject of high-stakes litigation. His family has accused the Los Angeles Police Department of harboring rogue officers who were supposedly involved with the murder. No trial date has been set, but lawyers for the Wallace family, in interviews last week, said their principal case, one of two related suits in the Federal District Court here, may go before a jury later this year.
That would be just one more complication for a film that, its makers say, will avoid any overt attempt to assign blame for Mr. Wallace’s death while getting to the bottom of his character, his art and his considerable appeal.
“We want the movie to be an anthem for a generation,” said Peter Rice, the studio’s president.
“Notorious” will push Searchlight, best known as a perennial Oscar contender with films like “Juno” and “Sideways,” into a tougher kind of African-American storytelling than it has tackled before in films like “I Think I Love My Wife,” directed by Chris Rock, or the comedy “Phat Girlz,” with Mo’Nique.
Success would tap a vast urban audience and might catch the kind of broad-based business that made “8 Mile,” which starred the white rapper Eminem, a significant hit for Universal Pictures just over five years ago. But failure could expose the studio to ridicule — pop-culture aficionados have already been sniping on the Internet — from a musical culture that has made a religion of credibility. “I have a bad feeling that Biggie will be portrayed as an absolute saint,” ran one post this month on the widely read Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).
Music biography is one of Hollywood’s more difficult forms. In the best of circumstances it requires filmmakers to make tough choices about story structure and the re-creation of a familiar persona. Should the film tell a whole life (as with Édith Piaf and “La Vie en Rose”) or just part (as with Mozart and “Amadeus”)? Should the star impersonate the performer closely (as Jamie Foxx did with his portrayal of Ray Charles in “Ray”) or depend on a looser interpretation (following Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”)?
Fox comes to “Notorious” with at least a small edge, in that a crucial executive supervising the picture, Zola Mashariki, grew up in Mr. Wallace’s Brooklyn neighborhood and knew him.
But the film faces an extra challenge in that its star is a newcomer, Jamal Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper known as Gravy. Mr. Woolard was chosen earlier this month after an open casting call that brought the film advance publicity as young men lined up for the role.
Not part of the open call in New York in October, Mr. Woolard had been under consideration since November, and was quietly being groomed by the film’s director, George Tillman Jr., before being officially selected.
“We set up a boot camp for three months just for him,” Mr. Tillman said from New York, where he is preparing to begin production with Robert Teitel, his partner in State Street Pictures. Mr. Tillman said that major musical performances in the film would generally use Mr. Wallace’s recorded voice, though Mr. Woolard would perform in situations where no familiar recording existed.
Mr. Tillman, 39, is known for the character-oriented “Soul Food” and “Men of Honor,” and was not an obvious choice for a film about street life. “Notorious” had been considered a possible project for Antoine Fuqua, who has made grittier action dramas like “Training Day” and “Shooter.”
Mr. Tillman is a longtime fan of Mr. Wallace’s music and said the Notorious B.I.G. hit “Juicy,” with its up-from-the-gutter lyrics, inspired him years ago to get his first movie off the ground.
Now Mr. Rice said he was counting on Mr. Tillman’s ability — working with a script that is still being revised by Reggie Rock Bythewood (“Biker Boyz”), following an original draft by the journalist Cheo Hodari Coker — to “get deep down under” the skin of a character whose life included childhood drug dealing, a drug arrest and an explosive career writing and performing some of the angriest music of the 1990s.
Mr. Tillman said that the movie’s Notorious B.I.G. would sharply differ from that rapper’s harsh public image. “The major theme we’re working toward is family, being a man, what it takes to be a man,” he said. The movie follows Mr. Wallace from childhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn through his death, and various scenes will “capture the spirit and reason for certain things” without making detailed accusations, Mr. Tillman said.
Over the years Mr. Wallace’s killing has been attributed to vendettas and conspiracies. In lawsuits still being contested in federal court here his family has sought at least $700 million from the City of Los Angeles and others, based on claims that members of the police force were complicit in the crime.
Mr. Wallace’s mother, Voletta Wallace, who is a producer of the film — along with his former associates Wayne Barrow, Mark Pitts, Sean Combs and others, who have various producing credits — said the project would deliberately steer clear of the controversy. “That’s going to be another movie,” Ms. Wallace said.
Perry Sanders, who represents Ms. Wallace in the suits, said he had had “zero input of any kind” on the film project. If Searchlight meets its intended release date of Jan. 16, however, the picture and its attendant promotions could well become a factor in the court fight.
They might, for instance, feed a Notorious B.I.G. revival while jurors are deliberating responsibility for his death or perhaps determining damages based on the presumed value of a career that was cut short. “It’s clear he had tremendous earning potential,” Mr. Sanders said.
That potential, and Mr. Wallace’s softer side, will be on full view in the movie if Ms. Wallace has her way. “He was a father, a son, a friend,” she said. “When they see this movie, they’ll see not only a rapper. He was a human being.”
Ms. Wallace — who will be portrayed in the film by Angela Bassett — said she planned to visit the set in Brooklyn next Monday for the first day of shooting. “And I’m going to be there every day until the end,” she said.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company