[14 June 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I didn’t create thug life. I diagnosed it.
—Tupac, Tupac: Resurrection
Kept my history a mystery, but now I see.
The American Dream wasn’t meant for me.
‘Cause Lady Liberty’s a hypocrite, she lied to me.
Promised me freedom, education, equality.
Never gave me nothing but slavery.
—Tupac, “Panther Power”
To me, the key is about the seeds. You gotta keep your eyes on the seeds.
—Lauren Lazin, commentary track, Tupac: Resurrection
Hearing Tupac Amaru Shakur talk about himself in the past tense is unnerving at first. Not only was he profound and perceptive in his early 20s, he was prescient too. “I got shot. I always felt like I’d be shot,” he says at the start of Lauren Lazin’s documentary, Tupac: Resurrection. “I’m surprised, but I’m happy, because I believe it’s all in God’s hands.” With a voiceover culled from the artist’s many thoughtful and provocative interviews, the film pieces together a too-short life, a patchwork that’s sometimes sad, sometimes predictable, often inspired and impassioned.
The basic trajectory of that life is familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Tupac’s art, as he talked about his life throughout his career, using his experiences as foundation, source, and challenge. The film recounts all those steps, from his birth in Brooklyn in 1971 to Baltimore to Digital Underground to Clinton Correctional Facility to Death Row and at last to Vegas on 7 September 1996. From jump, the film insists on the importance of Tupac’s mother Afeni (who executive produced the film, ensuring, if nothing else, its excellent soundtrack, with add-ons by Tupac acolyte Eminem, including the single “Running [Dying to Live]”). Black Panther, community activist, drug addict, and strong black woman, she shaped her vibrant son as he absorbed her politics, rage, and poetry, challenging and admiring her at different points in his life.
Paramount’s DVD includes commentary by Afeni and Lazin, on separate tracks, as well as brief observations by “surprise guests” (“All of these people helped me help Tupac to tell his story,” says Lazin, whose observations range from technical to political to personal, always engaging and smart). Some of these are more insightful than others, and include Snoop, Marlon Wayans (who offers observations on his own father’s discipline, which Pac didn’t have), Sway (“Pac was one of the most confident, arrogant MCs you could ever meet”), and the disarmingly fervent Jada (recalling their different struggles for “basic survival” as kids on the mean streets of Baltimore). Those annotations by family members especially—his mother, half-sister, and aunt—are remarkably moving and astute, almost providing an entirely other film again, over the same images.
As it considers Tupac’s evolution, the film is also concerned with continuity across generations, revealing the doubled relationship hiphop (and Tupac) has with institutional histories—celebrating underground, resistant histories and resisting mainstream, “victors’” histories. For Tupac (as for hiphop), the point is to understand the past in order to overcome and build on it. “Everybody’s past,” Tupac says, “is what made their future.” The film reflects that his own relationship to his past changed during his life, but even more to the point, as his past became mythic and seminal, a means to a legend that now has everything and precious little to do with the person he may have been. Certainly, there were pressures on Tupac to be a star, a leader, a prophet, and yet he also felt (or said he felt) that these were his callings, that he would make a difference in the broadest sense: “Throughout my life, I just wanted to be an angel of God.”
Tupac: Resurrection is all about this angel as he saw himself. It also, perceptively and provocatively, about his historical contexts—the Panthers, the Civil Rights movement, hiphop culture, even the recently vaunted President Reagan, whose 21 May 1986 statement on poverty was instantly notorious: “I don’t believe that there is anyone that is going hungry in America just simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them. It is by people not knowing where or how to get this help.” As Lazin notes in her commentary, “The Reagan clips here really underscore for me the idea that in the 1980s, there were two Americas. There was the one on TV, and the one that many people were experiencing. It’s kind of shocking to see them juxtaposed here. In some ways, I think, the urgency of hiphop came out of this alienation.”
Lazin describes her film as depicting two Tupacs, the “responsible and the outrageous Tupac, the happy and the angry Tupac.” Her film, she contends, offers “the Tupac that we see on camera, growing and changing and living his life right before our eyes. Then there’s also the Tupac in voiceover, the one with us now, looking back on his life.” One good example of this is the opening track, over shots of Las Vegas, “Staring at the World Through My Rearview,” which Lazin describes as “all about Tupac being chased by his future.”
As volatile as Tupac may have been, those who tell and retell his story tend to make it unambiguous, whether in hagiographies or in critiques of his outraged lyrics. This process of “stabilizing” his legend continues with the film’s release, as it is accompanied by the requisite cd of tracks “inspired” by Tupac, a coffee table-type book, Tupac: Resurrection, featuring photos and quotations from the movie, edited by Jacob Hoye and Karolyn Ali, and now, Paramount’s DVD, full of snippets of extras, more interviews, a couple of first-rate music videos (“Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Trapped”), a Malcolm X dinner speech, four deleted scenes, and a few extra interviews with Pac (the so-called “Very Special Christmas Interview” from August 1992, his first MTV interview as a solo artist, in which he’s asked how to pronounce his name and to describe his “best Christmas memory”; and another from the “1996 Music Video Awards,” with Tupac along with Snoop in pimp regalia; when they’re asked to comment on Biggie and Puffy’s attendance at the event, Tupac asserts, “We are businessmen, we are not animals”).
The DVD features as well Tupac’s deposition from 28 June 1995, in response to a suit by a slain Texas state trooper’s family, who charged that Tupac’s music incited the murder (he tries once, good-naturedly, to joke with the interviewer, and is quickly cut off). Other interviews are extremely brief, and only intermittently interesting: his stepfather, Black Panther Mututlu Shakur, appears in prison, where he’s serving a 60-year sentence for conspiracy to commit a bank robbery, convicted in 1982, when Pac was 11. Snatches of conversations with “famous folks,” like Jada, Marlon Wayans, Snoop, Em, Treach, Mary (“He was just always warring for us, and making us understand that he was in the struggle for us”), 50 Cent, as well as Tupac’s relatives (for instance, Aunt Glo and Cousin Jamala) are less informative.
That said, their commentary over the DVD’s version of the documentary is sometimes quite compelling, as when Tupac’s half-sister Sekyiwa says of his run-in with the Oakland police in 1991, “I believe, that it was his first bout with racism,” even as she apologizes for being naïve herself about racism. “This is just me talking,” she says, “it sounds weird, but I even, for a long time, have always said I never experienced racism. Because we grew up so politically conscious that we weren’t really looking for acceptance.”
As Tupac: Resurrection has Tupac representing himself, the counterpoint is unavoidable, as it also seeks to organize and make sense of chaos. On the surface, this is a matter of correspondence: when he speaks of his friend Jada Pinkett, and you see images of them together; he describes his experiences on a particular movie set or at high school in Baltimore, and you see matching photos and footage. Beneath this surface, the documentary makes sense by extrapolation and education, granting Tupac yet another chance to speak his mind, indict injustice, and urge action. To that end, Tupac: Resurrection includes brief and telling clips of easy targets Dan Quayle, C. Delores Tucker, and Calvin Butts, almost as comic relief (with a shot of the bulldozer crushing cds, as if that’s been forgotten), as they look so silly now.
Tupac himself was painfully aware of political and material oppressions, and those afflicting many millions more. The film retells some of his most famous run-ins with his “number one enemy,” the police (the beating in Oakland, his arrest for assaulting the Hughes brothers, his shooting in New York, his conviction on sexual abuse charges and 11-month stint in a New York State prison), revealing his take on each episode in a series of interview snippets, with Tabitha Soren, Arsenio, and a youthful but still somber Ed Gordon. “My fans go to jail,” he observes, “just like me.”
These experience did not define Tupac’s life, but they surely changed it. Sekyiwa tearfully notes in her commentary over images reporting Tupac’s first shooting, in New York, “Our whole family changed. I always say that if we were to do a movie, I would film that entire period in slow motion. It felt like months of moving slowly, and it was really crazy. There was a lot of hopelessness in the air.”
The movie alternates between personal memories and public performances, news footage and home movies, still photos and his own carefully maintained notebooks, music videos (“Brenda,” “California Love”) and film scenes: Tupac as Bishop in Juice (in the commentary track, Treach notes that though he was supposed to have the role, Tupac was “dope”), Lucky in Poetic Justice (Gene Siskel: “I hope I get to see him again real soon”), Birdie in Above the Rim (he and Marlon Wayans have a good laugh over Wayans’ name in the film—Boogaloo—as this must have been some screenwriter’s idea of what a black baller would be called), and Spoon in Gridlock’d. Even in this brief career, he demonstrates remarkable range and changes across roles. Lazin uses still shots that lift and shift, animated as if to emulate the vivacity and instability of history—you can’t hold it down.
Just so, Tupac’s self-descriptions reveal his understanding of cultural and political shifts, as well as his evolving efforts to express ideas and make appeals. He describes, for example, his decisions to attend “dirty parties” even after he became a celebrity, as these were where he might maintain his sanity, apart from the noise of privilege. As well, he explains repeatedly, as he did during his lifetime, his understanding of thug life, as concept, practice, and ethos.
“I don’t understand why America doesn’t understand thug life,” he says, “America is thug life. What makes me saying, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ different than Patrick Henry saying, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’? What makes my freedom less worth fighting for than Bosnians or whoever they want to fight for this year?” Lazin’s movie shows Tupac’s rudeness as much as his wisdom, his poetry and frustration, beauty and defiance. By turns elegiac, inventive, and contemplative, the film shows you what you’ve seen before, but in a form that insists on complexity rather than definition.