Feathered Bastard

Rotten Tomatoes' Ofay-Centric Critics, and the Biggie Smalls Biopic Notorious

There are very few film critics I can read without getting at least mildly peeved at their gasbaggery. But the critics' pool on the geek-fan site RottenTomatoes.com really ticks me off, particularly in regards to the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious, which I caught over the weekend.

If you're a fan of Biggie, you'll probably like the film. That's not to say you won't have problems with some of the portrayals, but in general, the acting is solid, the direction is slick, and the film overall is entertaining. If you hate hip hop, dislike Biggie Smalls, or are generally uninterested in the subject matter, it stands to reason that you will not be buying a ticket for this movie, or putting it on your Netflix to-rent list.

And that's where the pencil-necked geeks of RottenTomatoes come in. Well, they ain't all pencil-necked geeks, but take a look at the thumbnail snaps of these film reviewers from a vast assortment of publications and Web sites, and you'll notice one thing about the lot of 'em. For the most part, they look like they could give the twits on The Hills lessons in pastiness.

I'm not saying that all film punditry breaks along racial lines, but there are plenty of ofays out there who know nothing when it comes to contemporary African-American culture and music. Yeah, sure, they loved Ray, and maybe they loved Dave Chappelle back when he was on. (That's a big maybe, BTW.) But they couldn't tell the difference between T-Pain and R. Kelly if they were locked in a men's room stall with both.

Unfortunately, the majority of film critics seem to fall into this cracker-centric world-view. And that tends to explain some of the results you get on the RottenTomatoes "Tomatometer," which "measures the percentage of positive reviews from approved Tomatometer critics for a certain movie."

Notorious rated a mere 53% on the Tomatometer. This, despite a performance from Brooklyn MC Gravy (Jamal Woolard) that channels Biggie from beyond the grave, a sizzling portrayal of Lil' Kim by Naturi Naughton, Angela Bassett's sympathetic take on Biggie's mom, and Derek Luke's Puffy, which thankfully is not true-to-life; i.e., not as irritating as the real Sean Combs.

"Generic rise-and-fall fare" was the RottenTomato consensus on Notorious. Hey, but so was Walk the Line (83%) which would have been pretty boring if we hadn't had Joaquin Phoenix to watch in the role of Johnny Cash. But to many of RT's scribes, Cash is a more compelling subject than Chris Wallace. That has less to do with the skin color of the protagonists than the cultural limitations of the critics involved, most of whom probably voted for Barack Obama and would likely label themselves "liberals," if polled.

I'm not saying Notorious is Oscar-bait. Though, in my opinion, neither is some banal yarn like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which scored 71% on the Tomatometer. Or that comic book darling of the middlebrows The Dark Knight, which garnered a whopping 94%. To equate yet another in a long line of tales about the DC Comics superhero to a work of art, as many of these dunderheads have done, just goes to show ya how low the limbo bar is these days on the film front.

Talk about your Algonquin Clown Table, even trivial cinematic fluff like the grandma-friendly dog movie Marley & Me (60%) or the puerile comedy Role Models (76%) scored better on RT than Notorious. Christ, you couldn't drag me to a film like Marley & Me if there was a bazooka to my cranium and a nekkid Thandie Newton offering me manual stimulation as encouragement.  

Not all the ofays crap out on Notorious. Roger Ebert thumbs-upped it, for instance, though it seems he's pretty generous with those fifth digits these days. And not all of these writers have their mug shots up, so I'll admit to that flaw in my argument. Also, of the couple of reviewers of color on RT, opinion was split on Notorious. Still, stopping by the Tomatometer on Notorious and seeing all of these pale faces staring back grates on me, self-loathing Caucasian that I am.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons