Lawrence Burney (Washington Post) reviews new documentary Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell (2021). He stresses that the most touching moments in the film come with the focus on “the previously underappreciated role that Biggie’s Jamaican roots had in his life” and the family members (especially his mother and grandmother) who helped keep him in touch with his Caribbean heritage.
Since his death in 1997, The Notorious B.I.G.’s legacy has been cheapened by a fixation on using his life and career as a cautionary tale about a rap beef gone wrong. This has especially been perpetuated by movies and TV shows that have compartmentalized his life into three simple areas: his rise from corner boy Christopher Wallace to hip-hop superstardom; his complicated relationship with rapper Lil Kim; and how he and Tupac Shakur’s paths had fatal intersections. Netflix’s new documentary on the rapper, “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell,” touches on all these things in one way or another, but the film also feels like the first time we are afforded the opportunity to experience him as a multidimensional man who was destined to be an artist, whether he broke into mass consciousness or not.
The story is told through the perspectives of Biggie’s family and childhood friends who are able to naturally peel back his layers. Damion Butler, a.k.a. D-Roc, who’d known Big since their adolescent years weaving through Bed-Stuy streets, adds the most texture, with an abundance of hand-held VHS footage that he personally captured while on the road during tours in the mid-90s. It’s here that we see what Big was like in those moments between his time onstage and in the public eye — dancing, shaving, singing his favorite R&B cuts. The majority of this footage hasn’t been widely seen, and it sets the tone for what follows. And what quickly becomes apparent as the narrative progresses is that Christopher Wallace was someone whose creative potential was identified and nurtured throughout the majority of his short life.
We get to hear directly from a few of those nurturing forces, as well. There’s Suif Jackson, a.k.a. C-Gutta, who remembers Biggie as a curious, sheltered kid whose mom helicoptered over him before they started sneaking out and getting into trouble. Donald Harrison, a saxophonist who was attracted to Big’s Clinton Hill neighborhood for its volume of Black creatives, became a mentor who took him to New York City’s art galleries and helped flesh out his musical knowledge. The most touching moments come with the focus on the previously underappreciated role that Biggie’s Jamaican roots had in his life.
It’s not a revelation that his family came from the Caribbean island, but what is new is how much of an influence it had on the artist that he became. His mother, Voletta, revisits her decision to leave her home country as a teen, with hopes of spreading her wings and becoming an insanely rich woman in America. That didn’t happen for her, but she still made do as best as she could, settling in Brooklyn and sending her son to Catholic school and making sure he was in touch with his Caribbean lineage.
She talks about meeting Biggie’s father — who was Jamaican, as well — and falling hard for him, only to find out that he was married after she became pregnant. Biggie’s 96-year-old grandmother, Gwendolyn, is interviewed at her home and talks about her inability to not spoil him whenever he came to visit, as well as the soul, country and reggae music that soundtracked her home and community and would later influence her grandson’s decision to rap over sampled music.
Most crucial to his creative development, though, was his uncle Dave, an artist himself, who would take Big along with him to dance-hall parties where he was performing, giving him the chance to test out his embryonic skills on the mic. It’s here that he first got the taste of the spotlight. In previous accounts of his artistic rise, the accepted narrative was that his inclination to participate in music was based solely on what was happening on the New York streets.
There are some familiar faces and voices in “I Got a Story to Tell.” Sean “Diddy” Combs — who has historically been the authority on all things Biggie Smalls — talks about the developmental stages of the artist who helped Combs become a hip-hop mogul. Mister Cee, the legendary Brooklyn DJ, talks about the potential he saw in Biggie when he was just starting to make noise in their home borough. These are the more rote moments of the documentary because of how much these characters have been previously tapped in telling Biggie’s story. But considering that many hip-hop fans in 2021 weren’t even born when Big was murdered in 1997, it’s a necessary element of the story.
Perhaps the primary takeaway from “I Got a Story to Tell” is the lesson it offers in how we ought to remember the fallen deities of hip-hop culture. Never before has Biggie been shown to be a product of his environment — and not in the euphemistic way that has come to describe someone’s proclivity to engage in unsavory behavior because they come from a rough area. Like everyone, Biggie Smalls was the summation of all of his life’s experiences. But when rappers’ stories are told, they are rarely afforded that full treatment, as the taboo parts of their lives take precedence: guns, drugs, crime, sex. Those elements are the building blocks of many great American tales, both real and fictional, but when it comes to telling the story of hip-hop greats, it can often seem like these are the only elements. It’s a disservice to continue this way because it flattens the full humanity of some of our most notable artists and can turn complex individuals into caricatures at worst. “I Got a Story to Tell” feels like getting to know a Notorious B.I.G. who wasn’t well known before. And that makes it a step in the right direction.
[A young Christopher Wallace in “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell.” (Christopher Wallace Estate)]