Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Film Notorious: Censoring Biggie’s Legacy

by Kabir Joshi-Vijayan Basics Issue #13 (Apr/May 2009)

Biggie Smalls, one of the greatest hip hop artists in history, was assassinated 13 years ago by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and corporate thug Suge Knight in an operation that was both assisted and approved by the American state. The year before that, Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Vegas by the same forces. Both men were murdered because they spoke about the realities facing black people in the ghettos of America: poverty, crime, racism and state violence. ‘Pac was a genuine revolutionary carrying on the legacy of his Black Panther mother by organizing a truce between the Bloods and Crips in LA in 1992. Although not as politically educated, Biggie still rapped about the struggles he faced growing up. Their murders had everything to do with crushing the revival of a black revolutionary movement in the US and silencing two positive figures for young racialized youth. But you’ll get none of that from watching the new Biggie film, ‘Notorious.’

Instead, you’ll hear the entertaining, but fictional story, of an artist who reached the American dream through skill and hard work, but because of some dumb rap beef was killed before he could really mature as a man and performer. Notorious runs through Biggie’s childhood and youth without showing a single example of police brutality or systematic discrimination. According to the film, Smalls chooses to hustle dope before realizing he is wasting his lyrical abilities, and dedicates himself to the rap game. His success is then attributed more to the skill of his manager Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (the corporate snake who owned Biggie’s label ‘Bad Boy’, and produced the film), than to his personal talent. But the movie’s biggest lie is its portrayal of the supposed East Coast - West Coast feud between ‘Bad Boy Records’ and Tupac’s rap label ‘Death Row’, owned by the criminal Suge Knight. In reality, the rivalry was created by the American state working with Suge and Puffy in order to break the unity being built by ‘Pac’s community organizing, and replace the positive hip hop being recorded at the time with diss tracks. Notorious plays into the east/west rivalry myth by presenting Biggie’s murder as revenge for Tupac’s death, and even more destructively, by casting Tupac in the film as naïve and aggressive and even mocking his revolutionary politics.

Still, Notorious did manage to do justice to Biggie in some ways. Jamal Woolard’s performance in the title role is incredible, and every hip hop fan will appreciate seeing B.I.G come back to life on the screen. But it’s an insult to Biggie’s memory to present his assassination at the hands of the LAPD and Death Row as the result of a simple ‘rap battle’, and to censor any political content from his story.

R.I.P. Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and all other victims of political assassinations by the US government!