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Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Notorious (2009)

Notorious (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 primary POV 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 for 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? Stats say 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 sense is that Tupac was trying. Eminim does. Most do not. But Christ, Biggie was only what...? Twenty five 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 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 (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.) makes you a man. 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 fucking BE THERE. 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 forty years old, the perps are long gone and you have the responsibility of dealing with the limp.

I'm sure that "Puffy" 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 Shug 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. All that glitters is not gold. Christopher Wallace fell directly into this trap, and it is a trap that leads to death and destruction rather than maturity. I would give "Notorious" a "B+".


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. We have an example of a black man who made it all the way to the top. 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. Sure hope it translates.

Is he laying it on thick with the Lincoln stuff? Maybe. But again, role models, people. We need the absolute best President we've ever had, if we're going to get out of the mess we're in. If I'd been elected, I would ask "who was the best?" and then do everything in my power to model him. His actions strike me as a prayer, an attempt to evoke the very best from himself, and not, as some have accused, a matter of ego. Kids who went into boxing gyms trying to be Ali, into martial arts schools trying to act like Bruce Lee, writers who imitate 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. If he DIDN'T think he needed to study and emulate the greatest leaders of the past, I'd be hella worried.


Just another comment: amateur writers and actors are often reluctant to read or watch the performances of other artists, for fear of "losing their originality." I've lost count of the students in my writing classes that have said that they don't read for this reason. Frankly, I know that until they get over this, they don't have a prayer. It is childish, "eternal amateur" behavior. Great writers read EVERYTHING. Great actors know EVERYTHING about the history of their craft, and what their contemporaries are doing. Great directors watch EVERY MOVIE that comes out (damned near!) It is only those who have not touched the bedrock of their essence are afraid of such things.


Robin James Burchett said...

In response to the request for testimonials:

Wow, I cannot even tell you what a difference this has made in my life. This is powerful, powerful stuff, that is also healthy and balanced. Steve Barnes walks his talk and in sixteen years I have not once regretted taking his advice. Give it a try - you're worth it.

Robin Burchett,
husband, father, writer, business owner

And another, with a different tone:

I have followed Steve’s work for sixteen years and have found it consistently powerful and effective. At 40, I have a strong healthy body, a successful business and professional career, and a wonderful marriage. Steve’s teachings have been immeasurably important to me in achieving these things.

Robin Burchett,
husband, father, writer, business owner

Feel free to modify as needed to suit the purpose, and to have your people contact me.

Frank said...

Steve said

"But Biggie only met his real father one time. How in the hell was he supposed to figure this stuff out? Stats say 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."

So what does this say about Gay families and adoption or artificial insemination?

Can a child grow up emotionally healthy with two parents of the same sex?

Marty S said...

Frank: My grandson's best friend has two moms and from what I can tell seems to be growing up just fine.

Anonymous said...

I believe Barak Obama only met his father a handful of times and he came out fine. I do believe a two parent-a mother and a father-is vital. But you know what? I'd rather be brought up in a single household than have a family who is a bum.

Also, Ms. Wallace also stated that she WANTED to be a single parent. She really didn't care for the biological. But she felt that working a lot of jobs, and putting her son through private school would make him ok. Not so.

As far as Lil' Kim is concerned, the reason why Lil' Kim is mad is because people truly see what she was to Big-she was his "jump off"-someone who he just has sex with. She so desperately wanted to be MORE to him and she wasn't. Ladies-when we give it up quick and don't make a man work to respect us, then that is the result. She was the "other woman" and she stayed the other woman.

Lil' Kim still isn't living in the real world and she is still living with her own demons. Everyone knows (well here in NY)
that once Big blew up, dark skinned women got no love from him. He would date/"court" light skinned women (Faith, Charlie Baltimore) but dark skinned women were good as groupies. That also affetced Kim and years ago, she started to admit that she had bought into that ideology-maybe she thought if she was "light enough", big would've treated her better. She even had the audacity to want a spanish actress Christine Milan to portray her! She looks nothing like her. She was mad that Naturi Naughton played her because she was "too dark". Please-she was same complexion as Kim.

I loved the film and yeah they downplayed Puffy's involvement in Biggie's latter days. Quiet as its kept-Big and Puffy weren't THAT close. Big was making him a lot of $$$ and that was that.

As far as Obama-yes he laying the Lincoln thing too much. Especially when you really read up on Lincoln, the last thing he really wanted to do is free slaves. But that is another topic altogether. I just hope he gets in there and kick some butt. Michelle Obama is the WOMAN. There would no Barack without Michelle. Trust. Black women-take notes.

I loved wtaching the Kenyan Bous Choir dancing.

Mike R said...

Notorious sounds interesting. I'll check it out.

If you're really curious there have been studies on it. Wikipedia is a good place to start (while not being a good place to end);

"Research has found no major differences in parenting or child development between families headed by two mothers and other fatherless families.[84][85][83] Like children raised by single mothers, children raised by two mothers perceived themselves to be less cognitively and physically competent than their peers from father-present families.[85] Children without fathers had more interactions, severe disputes and depended more on their mothers. Sons showed more feminine but no less masculine characteristics of gender role behavior.[83] Compared with young adults who had single mothers, men and women raised by two mothers were slightly more likely to consider the possibility of having a same-sex partner, and more of them had been involved in at least a brief same-sex relationship, but there was no statistical difference in sexual identity of children compared to children of opposite-sex parents.[85]

A number of health and child-welfare organizations "support the parenting of children by lesbians and gay men, and condemn attempts to restrict competent, caring adults from serving as foster and/or adoptive parents." Such organizations include the Child Welfare League of America, North American Council on Adoptable Children, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers.[86] On July 28, 2004, the American Psychological Association's Council of Representatives adopted a resolution supporting legalization of same-sex civil marriages and opposes discrimination against lesbian and gay parents.[87] Noted Harvard political philosopher and legal scholar John Rawls supports gay marriage and did not believe that it would undermine the welfare of children.[88]

Same-sex marriage opponents argue that mainstream health and mental health organizations have, in many cases, taken public positions on homosexuality[89][90] and same-sex marriage[91][92] that are based on their own social and political views rather than the available science."

Marty and Anonymous,

There are 6,700,000,000 people in the world. A sample of 1 is just not very meaningful. At all. What matters is quantifiable data as you can find any exception to any general trend if the sample size is large enough.


Frank said...


If you're really curious there have been studies on it.

I'm not. I was curious how it fit with Steve's world view of how things work based on this post.

My own personal opinion is that healthy people have a reasonable chance of raising healthy kids. Unhealthy people have a reasonable chance of raising unhealthy kids.

Frank said...

Oh, and I do not find Obama's homage to Lincoln overdone or inappropriate in the least.

I do find it interesting that he picked the First Republican and the Great Communicator as role models.

I'm hopeful for his Presidency.

Steven Barnes said...

I have no data to suggest that children raised by gay parents are at a disadvantage. I'm certainly watching this to see what develops. My guess? There's no difference. But this is cautious optimism, not certainty.
Obama was raised by a single mother, and was therefore at greater risk, statitically. She married again, giving him a surrogate father, and his grandparents were VERY involved in his raising. But again, looking at individual cases is far less revealing than looking at large statistical groups. You can prove anything you want looking at individual cases.
If Ms. Wallace WANTED to be a single mother, I lose respect for her. She wasn't raped, was she? She chose the father, then decided to raise by herself? Bad judgement, at the very least. She's responsible for who she admits to her body, and is responsible for the negative result.

Steven Barnes said...

I agree with Frank: healthy people will tend to raise healthy kids. Unhealthy people will tend to raise unhealthy kids. Separate from social judgments about gayness, I've never seen any real difference in health between gay and straight. Since human beings are clearly wired up to love and nurture those who are not related by blood (a real survival trait) I see a very real chance that it's just fine.

Steven Barnes said...

The light skin/dark skin thing is so sad, and has caused so many people so much pain. But it's based in a genetic/social reality: light skinned "black" children have always been treated better by white society, since slavery. Therefore, it is as much a survival value as intelligence, wealth, or health. Add to this the fact that intermixed bloodlines are, on average, considered more attractive than pure ANYTHING, and you have a mess. Add to this the fact that white women were held up as the ultimate models of female beauty, and the ultimate prize to aspire to, and a dark-skinned woman without healthy self-esteem has triple problems. No one will be surprised to learn that Kim's father left home early...

Steven Barnes said...

Thanks for the testimonial, Robin! Would you send me your email address?

Anonymous said...

Marty--km not saying one example is the rule. What I said first was I believe ina 2 parent family structure and I see a difference in families that have the father present amd those that don't. What I meant was there are a lot of homes where for some reason women have children with men who are bums and I would rather live in a hone with one parent than live with a father who is there but is still "absent".

Steve-no she wasn't raped. To read her words, she seemed kind of selfish. She was with a man and she became pregnant and she kept the baby and didn't really care if he was there or not. She had HER baby. She didn't feel the need to have any other children or even have a father figure present. It was like the biological served his purpose and wasn't really needed anymore. Children need mothers and fathers. Mothers are NOT fathers. Fathers play a very special role. And like you said-people need to be careful about who they lay down with.

The thing I loved about Biggie is that he embraced his "darkness" and made it fly. That's why I found it very strange that when it came to his women AFTER he blew up, he invoked the brown paper bag rule so to speak. Especially when he was around the Al B sure age of music where dark skinned men were not considered attractive.
And to see Lil Kim now, it is sad. She knows the pathology and she continues to live in it. And she was cute to begin with.

I have to admit this-when I was one a few sisters in my class, I looked at a fellow light skinned sister and said to myself "I bet you she think she all that!" To this day (almost 10 years later) she is one of my closest friends and she revealed to me how she is hurt by people who think exactly that same way. She hates this self hate ignorance. If she could be darker she would. And guess what? She is lighter than Obama and both her parents are black.

Anonymous said...

BTW- steve-funny you ask about Lil Kim's father. After her parents separated, her and her brother lived with her father. Apparently, her and her father did not get along-he had rules and she didn't like them. He was also heavy into "discipline".

Not surprising she was looking for that male figure in the men she was with.

Makes you think of the song "Daughters" by John Mayer.

"Fathers be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do. Girls becomes loversn and then into mothersn so mothers be good to your daughters too."

Unknown said...

She was with a man and she became pregnant and she kept the baby and didn't really care if he was there or not.

That kind of makes me wonder whether there was something in her life that made her think she wasn't going to get a man to stick around, and so she convinced herself not to care. Maybe not. Maybe she just plain didn't care. But it seems to me that most people who choose to be single mothers - whether of the better off "I'm getting artificially inseminated before I get too old" variety or of the less well off getting pregnant by a man they don't expect to step up to the plate variety - got to the point of seeing this as a choice at least partly because having both a child and a man who was willing to stick around just didn't look doable to them.

Not that it necessarily wasn't doable, but something convinced them it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm Lynn.

It's funny because she is west indiana nd I am too and west indians for the most part are pretty much nuclear family oriented. She was seeing this man and they has Christopher Wallace and then they broke up when he was still a baby. When she recounted the story, she was talking as if she liked him. I don't recall if she ever said she even loved him. Once she had the baby-that was all she needed in life. I mean there was no mention of even his father in the film. I was like damn! I would like to love the father of my child (if I ever have one).now I don't know if since then she has taken a different stance.

The weird thing is I hear that after she saw the film, she was very disturbed to learn certain things about her son that she never knew: that he could actually by abusive physically, that he was an adulterer. Funny-how moms always think their sons are perfect :)

Robin James Burchett said...


Unknown said...

Well, you may be right about her personally, Anonymous - I didn't see the film and you did. I'm more thinking in general about why women would choose to be single parents.

Anonymous said...

Lynn- I see what you are saying.

Marty S said...

Mike: A sample of one is actually much more significant than you think. If we have no data on what percent of children from a home with two parents of the same sex will be broken, then probability of all percents,10%,20%, 70%, 90% etc. are equal.Essentially this means that there is 50/50 chance that the proportion broken will be more or less than half. After random sample of one not broken the odds shift to three to one that less than half will be broken. It also goes a very long way to reducing the probability that a large percentage will be broken.The chance that 95% or more will be broken falls from 5% to about one quarter of one percent.

Ashe Hunt said...

Ms. Wallace seems to have been one of those young women who wanted someone to love them unconditionally and mistakenly assumed that a child would fill that position. I've seen that situation happen SO many times over the years and it is still happening on a larger scale than it needs to.

I figure Lil' Kim's problem with the portrayal of herself in the film is that she can't face what she was like back then. It's obvious to everyone that this young woman needs some form of psychological help NOW, so, it's not a stretch that many of her problems began long ago and many developed in her relationship with Christoper Wallace.

But yeah, Notorious was a rather decent presentation of Christopher Wallace, the man-child that existed behind the mask of The Notorious B.I.G.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic! I think beginners are quite right to worry about the suppression of originality by learning too much when they begin any "art-y" endeavor. I've long considered it a trade-off when someone's beginning anything like that; you can learn most efficiently and realize some skill most quickly by studying, taking formal lessons, and reviewing the work of the greats, or you can futz around with it yourself, not learning nearly as quickly as someone who's learning the standard lore, but possibly endangering your long-term creativity.

Since chess is the 'art' that I'm most familiar with, that's my main touchstone. I used to wonder why these days so many tournament players seemed to all play just the same (and usually max out as a B-rated skill level)until I recently began reading some of the books they all read now when they start out. It kept them from fiddling around and finding things out on their own at an important stage in the creative process, apparently.

Likewise, I replay some of the games I played when I was a much, much lower rated player and see some elegant, unexpected moves that I don't even consider now while looking at the same positions. I realize that it's because, since then, I've learned enough of the standard positional postulates to steer me off from these moves. And, yes, these postulates are right 98% of the time, but having internalized them keeps me from even contemplating the pretty exceptions. Learning them did on average improve my skill, but also diminished my creative range. As I say, I think this tradeoff generalizes to many disciplines, at least in the formative stages....

And gotta run because we're doing a shift change here.

Some guy

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