[28 April 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Nick Broomfield’s Biggie & Tupac, now available on DVD from Razor & Tie, opens on a famous photo of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur—together. Each appears to be trying to out-thug-pose the other: B.I.G. stands with his head tilted to the side, his black headrag pulled low over his large eyes, as Tupac Shakur, equally artful, throws his hands up, both offering a “fuck you” to the camera, representing the way he used to do.
As the camera passes over this image—so frozen in time and now, after all the violence and grief, so sad—Broomfield’s voiceover explains the occasion for his film. Tupac was shot to death in a car 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 one-time friends came to an apparently fatal enmity. But this introduction to the vagaries of hiphop industry competitions is only a hook. Broomfield’s film is less interested in Biggie and Tupac per se than in the simultaneously extraordinary and mundane circumstances surrounding their deaths, in particular, the frustratingly go-nowhere “official” investigations.
Biggie & 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 Chuck Phillips’ suggestion, in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, that Biggie paid to have Tupac killed and was in Vegas at the time of the shooting.)
Versions of the corrupt L.A. cops story have been told before, in a 2000 article in the New York Times Magazine (Lou Cannon’s “L.A.P.D. Confidential”), as well as 2001 articles in Rolling Stone (Sullivan’s “The Murder of the Notorious B.I.G.,” 8 June) and The New Yorker (Peter Boyer’s “Bad Cops,” 21 May), as well as a Frontline documentary about L.A.P.D. corruption that same year. Essentially, Broomfield, with Poole’s on-camera help, makes connections among several L.A.P.D. officers (Rafael Perez, David Mack, and the late Kevin Gaines among them), the Rampart scandals, and the Biggie and Tupac murders.
Broomfield comes at this morass of egos and exploits as he comes at all of his filmic subjects, as an outsider looking for “answers.” In this role, he’s earnest and dogged, outwardly naïve and even stammering on occasion, but always wryly commenting and asking aloud the 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.
This is Broomfield’s great insight, worth repeating in all his films: truth is messy and unstable, truth is self-serving (even if that self might be, on occasion, Broomfield), and truth is produced by the beholder’s interests and investments. Broomfield’s 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. Biggie & Tupac is best when it’s not making assertions (most of which are not new), and is instead challenging the very idea of making assertions. As Broomfield notes on the commentary track, his “interview method” can seem transparent: he like to repeat a last word spoken by a subject, as this may help the subject to build on an idea. He “enjoys” his interviews, treats them as “conversations” more than examinations or quests. The film is about process, exposed as equally ludicrous, methodical, accidental, and/or fortuitous. As an investigation of investigations, the film is a little meta, but that only makes it more compelling, more knotted, more galvanizing.
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.” 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 DVD includes a couple of “Failed Interviews,” one that Broomfield introduces: “This is us being chucked out of a private housing estate in New Jersey,” where they had gone to interview Damien Butler, a witness to Biggie’s murder who was now “frightened one way or the other.” As Broomfield describes it, the moment is “one of those humiliating experiences that one goes through when making one of these kinds of films, so we thought we’d put it in.” The second shows the Last Resort bar in the heart of the Rampart area, where Mackie and other cops would “hang out.” Broomfield’s questions to the bartender are summarily rebuffed. As well, the DVD features some rough, in-the-studio music tracks by Tupac’s stepbrother Mopreme, whose interview with Broomfield is particularly poignant, the Outlawz (Tupac’s backing band), footage of Tupac in the studio, as well as a rhyme by Biggie’s associate Chico.
While these extras helpfully illustrate problems and, to an extent, the excess—of feeling, care, and dedication that documentary-making entails, for the most part, Biggie & Tupac‘s argument stems from the filmmakers’ plain affections 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 for her). She plays a role reminiscent of Kurt Cobain’s aunt in Kurt & Courtney: kind and sincere. 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. Afeni remains affiliated with Suge Knight, as they continue to release Tupac’s work. And if she won’t be interviewed, he, eventually, will.
To get access to Suge, Broomfield must go through several intermediaries, including the prison warden at Owl Creek, where Suge’s serving time (he’s since been released). One of Suge’s reps warns Broomfield not to try to “use” Suge like he obviously used people 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 and fear that underlie the business of gangsta rap as well as the supposedly ongoing investigations into the murders, 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.
Broomfield goes on to make the sort of dry observations for which he is most well known (and, not to put too fine a point on it, beloved). When his usual cameraperson opts out of the trip to see Suge in prison, he notes this is out of concern for “self-preservation.” As well, Broomfield observes that Suge only agrees to the interview after some cogitation, and apparently, knows a little something about Broomfield’s work, insisting that there be “No slander and funny stuff!” That Broomfield repeats the phrase, deadpan, is partly hilarious and partly odd, though hardly as odd as the interview itself.
On its surface, this interview is uninformative, nearly goofy. Suge will lonely answer one question, essentially, which is to explain his “message to the kids.” Seated on a bench in the yard, his bald head shiny with sweat in the sun, big cigar in his mouth, he asserts his desires to help the next generation, to warn them off of his own past: “Peace positive for the kids,” he says.
Suge is positioned here as the film’s big get. In most of Broomfield’s films, this sort of hard-to-arrange interview serves as a climax—Aileen in her cell, Heidi in her dress shop, Courtney at the ACLU Awards. Here, however, and for all his spectacular strangeness, Suge is overshadowed at last by a return visit to Voletta. She cooks for the crew, and then recalls a phone she once had with her son, where he refused to get off—for three hours—until she forgave him for something he had said or did (something she doesn’t even remember). The point is this desire for forgiveness, and the generosity that Voletta not only embodies, but also recalls in her son. She provides Biggie & Tupac with welcome grace and warmth.