Hip-hop fans know well the late rap superstar Notorious B.I.G., who quickly rose to the top of the rap game with the release of his 1994 instant classic Ready To Die and steady stream of hits.
But Cheo Hodari Coker, who co-wrote with Reggie Rock Bythewood the hip-hop legend's biopic Notorious, wants moviegoers to get to know the man behind the music.
"My greatest hope is that people walk into the theater thinking about Notorious B.I.G. and leave thinking about Christopher Wallace," Coker said via telephone on the eve of the Fox Searchlight movie's release.
Coker conducted a wealth of first hand research on Biggie, having interviewed and reviewed his works in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Coker was the last journalist to interview Biggie before his untimely death, just 36 hours before Biggie was fatally shot on March 9, 1997 following a music award show afterparty. Coker also authored the biography Unbelievable: The Life, Death And Afterlife Of The Notorious B.I.G.
Coker had an opportunity to see the side of Biggie not privy to many of his fans, a duality that even surprised Big's mother, Voletta Wallace. Coker described how Biggie kept secret his street hustles from his mother.
"When Chris was alive he separated the Christopher side from the B.I.G./Notorious side," Coker explained. He compared Biggie's alter egos to that of comic book hero Spiderman. "The same way Aunt Mae didn't know Peter Parker was Spiderman, the same way Big compartmentalized himself."
Narrowing Biggie's story down to two hours was the hardest part of working on the script, said Coker, who penned the first two drafts.
Lil Kim, Notorious B.I.G. protégé and lover, has recently made headlines, maintaining that she would not see or support the movie because she was upset with her portrayal in the film. Kim complained that her perceived characterization as merely Biggie's mistress was not accurate. While Biggie did marry R&B singer Faith Evans while in the midst of a relationship with Kim, Kim stressed in a statement to AP that she and Big shared "great admiration and love for each other."
Coker believes that Kim's frustrations were fueled when someone slipped her an early copy of the script that had yet to include insights she shared with his co-writer Bythewood.
Kim might respond differently when she considers how compassionately viewers react to her character in the film. Coker described one moving scene that humanizes the hardcore rapstress.
"There's a really compelling scene in the studio where they have a confrontation and she and Big go at it," Coker explained. "She says to Big about Faith, 'What do you see in her that you don't see in me?' I think that there is something about that that reigns true to any man who has picked someone else. And you get past the hard shell of sexuality and braggadocio and in its place is a real woman."
Coker was impressed with the entire cast that includes Angela Bassett as Ms. Wallace, Derek Luke as Sean "Diddy" Combs, and Naturi Naughton as Lil' Kim. Coker was especially moved by lead character Jamal Woolard, a newcomer who has been praised by Big's mother and critics.
From the moment the film opens, Woolard convincingly captures the essence of Big. "[It was] like a couple minutes into Ray," Coker said, "[when the audience realized] this isn't Jamie Foxx as Wanda, that was some comedy he did. I'm watching Ray Charles."
Biggie fans will also get a glimpse of the rap icon's 11-year-old son, CJ, who plays his dad's childhood character in the film. "CJ does a wonderful job," Coker said. "I think Big would be incredibly proud of the young man that Faith has raised. It was especially poignant for me seeing him because Big talked about how he wanted to see CJ grow up and wanting to walk T'yanna down the aisle at her wedding."
During Coker's last interview with Biggie nearly 12 years ago, he saw that Biggie was putting his life back together and had realized how to better balance his real and artistic personas.
"He understood that he could be both Notorious B.I.G. and Christopher Wallace," Coker said. "He died right as he figured it out."