review by Carrie Gorringe, 21 June 2002
"No slander and
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
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
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 "f*ck 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 six 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.
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
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.
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.)
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 thirty-seven counts of impersonating a lawyer). He literally
cries while recalling his money-moving schemes.
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
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."
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.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Marion 'Suge' Knight
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not yet