We ain’t meant to survive, cause it’s a set-up.
And even though you’re fed up,
Huh, ya got to keep your head up.
— Tupac, “Keep Ya Head Up”
I am real. The lyrics might be a story or they might be real. But I stay real, I am never a story, never a script, never a character.
— Tupac, Tupac: Resurrection
At first, hearing Tupac Amaru Shakur talk about himself in the past tense is unnerving. 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 interviews, thoughtful and provocative, the film pieces together a too-short life, a patchwork that’s sometimes sad, sometimes predictable, and 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.
This relationship is good to remember, for and at one level, this film is all about continuity across generations. At another, of course, it’s about resisting history, or better, understanding in order to overcome it. “Everybody’s past,” he 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.”
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 not only by the requisite cd of tracks “inspired” by Tupac, but also a coffee table-type book, Tupac: Resurrection, featuring photos and quotations from the movie, edited by Jacob Hoye and Karolyn Ali.) While the movie “allows” Tupac to represent himself, the counterpoint is unavoidable: the film by definition 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.
But beneath the surface, this sense-making also has to do with extrapolation and education — granting Tupac yet another chance to speak his mind, indict injustice, and urge action. The film extols Pac’s skills and virtues, certainly, and to that end, it includes brief 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 (his 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.”
The movie alternates between news footage and home movies, still photos and his own carefully maintained notebooks, music videos (“Brenda Got a Baby,” “California Love”) and film scenes: Tupac as Bishop in Juice, Lucky in Poetic Justice, 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. 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.