Tupac: Resurrection (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

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.

Tupac: Resurrection

Director: Lauren Lazin
Cast: Tupac Shakur, Afeni Shakur, Suge Knight, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tabitha Soren, Biggie Smalls
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MTV Films-Amaru Entertainment
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-06-15
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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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