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Biggie & Tupac: The Story Behind the Murder of Rap's Biggest Superstars Print E-mail
Tuesday, 22 March 2005
Director Nick Broomfield once again reveals his keen eye for hot cultural topics with this documentary about the controversial deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. This filmmaker, you may recall, also directed films about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (“Kurt & Courtney”), and Heidi Fleiss (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”). Sadly, the deaths of famous rappers – such as Biggie and Tupac – are not at all an uncommon thing, especially given the lifestyles these primarily street-wise individuals lead. But the sad stories of these two particular artists go much deeper than just the simplistic result of too much sex, drugs and rock & roll. Their circumstances of their demises incorporate everything from gang warfare revenge to Los Angeles Police Department scandal (depending, of course, on whose opinion you choose to believe).
Broomfield tells us in the very beginning how Biggie and Tupac started out as friends, and he illustrates this by showing clips of the two performing and hanging out together. He then spends a little time profiling their respective backgrounds. Tupac is portrayed as a natural born actor, in addition to being a musician, through a funny clip of him wearing a long black wig and doing a spot-on imitation of Rick James. In another clip, one of his former drama teachers simply gushes over Tupac’s winning smile and enthusiasm for the arts. But artistic pursuits aside, this performer had anything but a normal childhood. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was a Black Panther, and his natural father (who is later interviewed on screen) wasn’t a part of the rapper’s life until well after he’d attained commercial success.

Biggie Smalls, born Christopher Wallace, is the only one of the two victims who is actually shown speaking in video clips during this work. Some of Smalls’ songs supposedly detailed the severe poverty he claims he came from. But his mother, Voletta, who receives a lot of screen time here, denies that there was ever a day when Smalls went hungry. And speaking of Voletta, you just can’t help but believe this woman truly loved her son. It is this love that drives her to this day to find out the truth about her son’s premature death, and her drive also appears to have inspired Broomfield’s desire to get to the bottom of it all, as well.

Unlike a typical TV drama program, “Biggie & Tupac” doesn’t tidy up this murder mystery into one nice neat package at the end. Instead, it probably raises more questions than it actually answers. An early and simplistic theory abut these high-profile deaths suggested that Tupac (who was a transplant to the West Coast), and Biggie (who established himself as an East Coast staple), were both the victims of rap’s West Coast vs. East Coast rivalries. Tupac was killed first, while attending a boxing match in Las Vegas, and Biggie was knocked off later in Los Angeles as retribution for Tupac’s killing, or so this theory supposes. But conspiracy theorists would tell you quite differently – that this first scenario is just what the sneaky (and actual) perpetrators want you to believe, and that this story is much more complicated than just being a typical case of predictable street gang activity.

Some have countered that Suge Knight (head of Death Row Records), and not everyday street thugs, orchestrated much of this real-life crime drama. The theorists feel Knight was first behind the death of Tupac, then arranged Biggie’s demise. He only had Biggie killed, they suggest, to give it the appearance of gang war rivalry and to cover up his own unsavory behavior. This theory is supported onscreen by accounts from former artist bodyguards and the testimony of a former LA cop who was involved in some of the investigation. If you add in the fact that Biggie was under FBI surveillance at the exact time he was murdered – yet this crime still remains unsolved – you just have to wonder if there might be more than a little police cover-up at play here. Even more incriminating is the notion that some of the very same cops who were moonlighting as Death Row security personnel during the time period of the murders were also later implicated in the whole LAPD Ramparts scandal.

Broomfield has perfectly cast himself as the narrator and investigator for this story. His outsider British accent gives his dialogue a sort of naively curious feel to it, and his more than slightly pushy interviewing techniques allow him the boldness to ask the kinds of questions no polite person might dare to entertain. Additionally, he’s just as comfortable barging into witnesses’ offices as he is sitting and casually speaking with victims’ family members over a home-cooked meal.

If you’re hoping to better understand each of these artists’ music through watching this film, you’ll be disappointed here. Except for its examination of rap music’s sometimes violently tribal nature, musical style has little – if anything – to do with this story. Had Biggie and Tupac been, say, country musicians, this story would have been just as compelling. But while rap artists many times exaggerate their implied violent sides in song to help garner credibility, the music is nonetheless linked to very real criminal elements in many instances. For example, it’s no coincidence that Knight named his record company Death Row, or that one of the film’s most chilling sequences involves. Knight being interviewed while still inside prison. This meeting was so frightening, in fact, that Broomfield’s regular camera operator opted out of it at the last minute, which also explains the literally shaky camera shots comprising this sequence.

“Biggie & Tupac” is not a beautiful film to watch. In fact, some of its cinematography pales in comparison to many of today’s slick local newscast reports. But what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in solid substance. This work includes pivotal chapters from two shortened life stories. And until these murders are finally solved, they will remain unfinished stories.

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