"No slander and funny stuff!"
A week or so ago, Imus in the Morning featured a phone interview with Suge Knight, CEO of Tha Row, formerly Death Row Records, onetime home to Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur. Expressing his admiration for Suge, who comes with a rep for being “aggressive” in his business dealings, Don Imus reported that Snoop—no longer smoking dope and still on Bill O’Reilly’s bad side—had recently called Suge a “bitch.” It’s hard to say exactly why Imus would want to broach this topic with Suge (and he talked about it for some minutes before Knight even came on the line, anticipating his reaction). Still, the broad stakes seem clear: the host was looking to goad Suge, inspire more name-calling and tough guy outrage. Despite Imus’s persistence, Suge didn’t bite. Yay for him.
The fascination gangsta rap holds for outsiders—those who would never take on the genre’s violent performance or posturing for themselves—is surely not new. In fact, many attribute this appeal as a primary reason for the genre’s rapid rise among suburban middle-class consumers, traditionally (if such a word might be applied) young, male, and mostly white. A combination of titillation and fear—like that displayed by Don Imus—drives cd sales even as it fuels anxieties and prejudices.
Nick Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac starts out looking like it’s going to be another such exercise. It opens on a famous photo of the two artists, each seemingly doing his best to out-thug-pose the other. Biggie Smalls stands with his head tilted to the side, his black headrag pulled low over his large eyes, as Tupac Shakur, equally artful, throws his hand up in a big old “fuck you” to the camera, not hating so much as representing, the way he did.
As the camera passes over this image, frozen in time, Broomfield’s voiceover explains the occasion for his film—Tupac was shot to death in Vegas on 7 September 1996, and Biggie was murdered just 6 months later, outside a party in L.A. He wonders aloud how these two friends and mutual supporters in hard business came to an apparently fatal enmity. But this introduction to the vagaries and tragic costs of gangsta rap is only a hook. Broomfield’s film ends up being much less interested in Biggie and Tupac per se than in the simultaneously extraordinary and mundane circumstances surrounding their deaths, in particular, the go-nowhere investigations.
Biggie and Tupac picks up arguments made elsewhere, by others, including ex-LAPD officer Russell Poole (who claims his investigation was thwarted by superiors) and Randall Sullivan, author of LAbyrinth, that the murders resulted from a combination of gang and cop vengeance plots and have since been covered up by a variety of conspiracies. (It also argues against a recent L.A. Times story’s suggestion that Biggie paid to have Tupac killed and was in Vegas at the time of the shooting.) Poole’s story has been told before, in 2001 articles in Rolling Stone (8 June) and The New Yorker (21 May), as well as a Frontline documentary about LAPD corruption that same year. Essentially, he makes connections among several LAPD officers, Rafael Perez, David Mack, and the late Kevin Gaines among them, the Ramparts scandals and the Biggie and Tupac murders.
Broomfield comes at all this as he comes at all of his filmic subjects—as a Columbo-like outsider, stammering, wryly commenting when it suits him, and asking aloud the kinds of questions that might occur to anyone without a background (and some with a background) in the particulars and personalities. Much like his previous films—for instance, Kurt & Courtney (1998), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992)—this one pushes at the limits of traditional documentary. Broomfield presents himself as a pseudo-valiant, persistent pursuer of “truth,” liking especially to look for it in places where others have not, and implicitly acceding that everyone has his or her own truth to tell. His films don’t feature much objectivity. Rather, they give the concept a good going-over, so that, by the end of each, you’re likely to be less sure of your own reading abilities than you were at the beginning.
This can be a very good thing. And Biggie and Tupac is best when it’s not making assertions (most of which are not new and most of which are going to be tedious to anyone who’s read anything about the cases in the past), and is instead challenging the very idea of making assertions and there are certainly points in Biggie and Tupac when the ostensible goal takes a back seat to the process, exposed as equally ludicrous, methodical, accidental, and/or fortuitous.
Tracking people who may have known Biggie when he was rhyming on the sidewalk outside a Brooklyn barbershop, Broomfield sticks his mic in someone’s face, and she hides: “He de bomb,” she says, but “I don’t want to be on tv.” (In fact, her attitude might be understood as refreshing, given how eager so many folks are to be on tv, especially those with nothing to say.)
Then Broomfield trundles off to visit Tupac’s former bodyguard, Frank Alexander, recently born again and living with several Rottweilers, still fearful even after writing an autobiography. When Broomfield asks Alexander about his assertion, in the book, that “words circulated” concerning Suge’s part in Pac’s murder, he hems and haws, underlining that these are not his words, but someone else’s that “circulated.” Or again, Broomfield goes to see one “witness” to LAPD planning and shenanigans, a guy named Mark Hyland, “the Bookkeeper,” suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome and depression (he’s also in jail on 37 counts of impersonating a lawyer). He literally cries while recalling his money-moving schemes.
The assertions the film does make are clearly based on Broomfield’s own obvious, openly stated affection for Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother, whom he calls a “former schoolteacher… who appeared in the video for ‘Juicy’” (at which point you see her in the video, as well as her son’s visible respect and love for her). She plays a role reminiscent of Kurt Cobain’s aunt in Kurt & Courtney: solicitous, kind, earnest. Not only is Miss Wallace charming and helpful in the filmmaking (when Broomfield can’t get an interview with Lil Cease, she has him sit and wait at her home while she calls Cease, and gets him to come on over right that minute), but she is also generous with her time and fond memories of Biggie (“My son was a poet”). The same cannot be said for Pac’s mom, Afeni Shakur, whom Broomfield describes as a “former Black Panther” (which everyone knows already, but somehow it seems part of a legacy of “violence” here) and as keeping a tight control on materials and still-to-be-released tracks, and to this end, she’s affiliated with Suge Knight.
Afeni won’t be interviewed. Suge, however, will. To get access to his big “get,” Broomfield must go through several intermediaries, including the prison warden at Owl Creek, where Suge’s serving time (he’s out now, as Imus reminds us). One of Suge’s reps warns Broomfield not to try to “use” Suge like he obviously used people, say, in Heidi Fleiss, to “elevate” himself and make them look stupid. If Broomfield screws up, this guy says, “Anybody who’s black in the prison won’t be speaking to you.” Articulating the race difference that underlies the business of gangsta rap, this threat also leads to a scene in the prison, where the black and Latino inmates look askance at the camera as Broomfield and crew make their way along the sidewalk. This would be the “courageous” part of the pursuit of “truth.”
Broomfield also makes a few dry observations. His cameraperson opts out of the trip to see Suge in prison, concerned for “self-preservation,” and the filmmaker must agree to Suge’s own terms: “No slander and funny stuff!” This leads to the actual interview, as uninformative and foolish as you might expect. Seated on a bench in the yard, his head shiny with sweat in the sun, big cigar in his mouth, Suge talks about his desires to help the next generation, to warn them off of his own past: “Peace positive for the kids,” he says, Broomfield rapt, nodding as if his life depended on it.
As if ensure his own credibility (which, more likely, he doesn’t much care about), Broomfield does mention here in voiceover, that Snoop is “terrified” regarding Suge’s imminent release, and has increased his security force. The film doesn’t leave you that way, though, returning to one last visit with Voletta, unscary as can be. While Biggie and Tupac has little to say that hasn’t already been told, she provides it with a bit of welcome grace.