It isn’t hard to find people with interesting things to say about Christopher Wallace, the late rap titan better known as The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls. He’s been widely hailed as one of the greatest to ever get behind a mic, an MC with a cinematic scope that changed the sound of New York City. Grab just about any hip-hop head off the street, and you’ll likely get an interesting take on Biggie, his music, and what he means to New York and hip-hop culture today. And just about anything they have to say will be better than Netflix’s new documentary Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell.
Directed by Emmett Malloy, Biggie is a paper-thin account of one of hip-hop’s most mythologized figures, tracing the broad strokes of his tragically short biography. Produced by his mother, Voletta Wallace, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs — whose record label released Biggie’s entire catalogue — the movie tells Biggie’s story via testimony from people who are exclusively interested in portraying him in the most radiant light, for reasons that are either obvious, like in Voletta’s case, or arguably self-serving, as with Combs.
Combs’ contributions are a big reason I Got a Story to Tell is so frustrating. The mogul and former kingmaker is among the most prominent subjects interviewed, and he works overtime to enshrine Biggie as even more of a deity than he already is. Combs is a valuable interview because he was there, as a key figure in Biggie’s meteoric ascent and his escalating conflicts. But Combs is only interested in framing Biggie as the Zeus of Rap Olympus, a title he says he knew Biggie would hold from day one. Combs is less interested in divulging anything personal, and the context he offers would be better served coming from someone who won’t profit from the legacy he’s diligently burnishing.
Worse, I Got A Story to Tell spins its tale without even mentioning many of its characters. No one speaks of Faith Evans, a monumental artist in her own right who briefly married Biggie and had a child with him. Suge Knight, Combs’ West Coast counterpart and a key figure in the ’90s hip-hop turf war, is also ignored. Both of them are hard to extricate from Biggie’s story — they actually appear in the archival footage the documentary pulls from — but for Malloy’s purposes, they might as well not exist.
The only truly complicated figure Malloy acknowledges in I Gotta Story to Tell is Tupac Shakur, the California rap prodigy whose life was also cut short by violence. The film glosses over the conflict between the two, only briefly mentioning it in the final 20 minutes, and never really articulating what sparked it. That makes Biggie a story without a proper third act. The omission could be explained as a decision to ignore the violence that hangs over the rapper’s legacy, but it comes at a price, ignoring the context in which these men lived their lives and made their art.
In its best, fleeting moments, the movie gets frustratingly close to illustrating why Biggie mattered, and what hip-hop meant to his city. These moments come when members of Biggie’s entourage share stories of his come-up, talking about the neighborhoods they grew up in. During these segments, a map of New York appears onscreen, and their old stomping grounds are outlined in red. In those red lines, I Got a Story to Tell shows the scope of its subjects’ entire world, spaces that span three to eight city blocks. For men like Christopher Wallace and those who idolized him, leaving that world was dangerous, and daring to want more would lead to trouble. This is the appeal of every rapper who makes it big, and the longing in the heart of every hip-hop head: knowing how small your world is, and daring to make it a little bigger.
I Got a Story to Tell is a movie without a clear audience. It’s too thin for fans who’ve heard every beat of this story told over and over again, and too narrow to be a good introduction to anyone who’s less familiar with Biggie’s work and his role in New York City hip-hop history. It’s less a movie to watch, and more of something to play in the background at a party thrown to reminisce about the good old days. It’s a party with a small guest list, because most everyone you could invite knows those days were never so good, and never that simple.
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is now streaming on Netflix.