Signifying Rappers

'Biggie and Tupac' charts the hits on a notorious heavy and an urban guerrilla

Like every major event in Tupac Shakur's life, his death was all too perfect, striking a balance between cliché and archetype so effortlessly that any and all messy details faded into the cleanly tragic outline of a myth. Where else, when else could this death-obsessed paranoid be gunned down than following a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas? Both Tyson and Shakur consciously embodied the projected Caucasian fears of African-American manhood: If Iron Mike would play the brainless attack dog, Shakur was the wily trickster--the signifying monkey as urban guerrilla.

Riding beside Shakur that night was a third, more demonic archetype: Suge Knight. "I know he's still in jail, but I'm still not comfortable talking about him," Cedric the Entertainer joked about the Death Row mogul just prior to his release from prison, going on to dub Knight a modern-day variant of Candyman. "Just try going home and saying his name three times," the Entertainer dared his audience. Suge Knight, Suge Knight, Suge... no, I can't do it. A lump of predatory muscle whose center of gravity seems to lie in a set of jaws typically contracted around a Havana cigar, Knight's 75 inches and 315 menacing pounds are molded into a thug caricature so one-dimensional that it practically dares you to laugh.

Say hello to my little friend: Notorious B.I.G. with Tupac Shakur in 'Biggie and Tupac'
Roxie Releasing
Say hello to my little friend: Notorious B.I.G. with Tupac Shakur in 'Biggie and Tupac'

Small surprise, then, that director Nick Broomfield's vigorously entertaining Biggie and Tupac, which pokes uninvited into the pitifully underexamined murders of the two rappers, builds to a climactic interview with Knight. Broomfield may be a mess (neither his research nor his equipment is adequately prepared), but he does know how to cast a villain. In Kurt and Courtney, the clownish British documentarian understood how Courtney Love's harpy stereotype bedeviled the alternative rock scene, and homed in accordingly. Biggie and Tupac ranges far and wide, from the streets of Baltimore to LAPD headquarters, but it always returns to Knight's ominous status in the hip-hop community.

The saga of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., nearly requires Broomfield's untutored perspective. With so few hard facts available, each of us gravitates toward the conclusion that most appeals to our particular sensibilities. Take the range of responses to Chuck Philips's recent L.A. Times feature, in which the writer quoted unnamed L.A. gangbangers insisting that Biggie was in Las Vegas on the night of Pac's shooting, and provided the murder weapon. The standard defense: Biggie couldn't have done it because...well, Biggie couldn't have done it. Similarly, those who back Philips do so because he provides ideological closure. Of course Tupac and Biggie are dead: Their entire careers predicted their deaths. The whole thing seems...uh, what was the name of that Tupac flick? Poetic Justice?

Broomfield has no such preconceptions. At once opportunistic and amateurish, Broomfield cuts a scruffy Columbo figure, unthreatening enough to lure subjects into his confidence. But unlike Peter Falk's alter ego, Broomfield doesn't know whodunit. The conclusions Broomfield reaches are often beside the point--but the curlicue processes by which he reaches them sure are suspenseful. Indeed, to reveal too much about the filmmaker's climactic encounter with Suge Knight would be like telling you that Joaquin Phoenix kills the alien with a baseball bat. (Oops.) According to Broomfield's sources, the LAPD was most likely involved. The FBI, which was trailing Wallace at the time of his death, may have been involved. And somehow, in some way or another, Suge Knight is seriously, inextricably implicated.

Broomfield's circuitous method of following clues to a dead end and providing equal time to whoever will talk on camera hardly makes for a capsule-ready narrative: The case is Byzantine enough as it is. Broomfield's chief informant is Russell Poole, an L.A. detective discharged from the force for too doggedly investigating Shakur's murder. Poole fingers Knight for both murders while acknowledging the connection between Death Row and the LAPD that became so embarrassingly clear during the Rampart scandal. And how about everyone's favorite suspect, Orlando Anderson--the Crip gangbanger whom Shakur and Knight assaulted in the MGM Grand lobby only two hours before Shakur's murder? Answer: a fall guy for Knight's nefarious machinations.

Biggie's mom Valetta Wallace--who carries herself with the implacable authority of the schoolteacher she was for many years--has refused to let the matter of her son's death drop. By cooperating with Broomfield, of course, she ensured positive portrayals of herself and her slain son. The filmmaker's portrait isn't quite a whitewash, although the testimony he gleans from folks who bagged groceries with Wallace, and from the kids whom Big used to charge a quarter to use his Atari, are mostly glowing. In addition, early clips of Biggie--the least intimidating fat kid on the block delivering ferocious street-corner freestyles--humanize the MC here in a way that doesn't happen with Tupac.

Nor could it, perhaps, because of a major difference between Shakur and Wallace. The latter became an icon because he seemed so recognizably human; the former was an icon because he was so charismatically unreal. As any number of ham-fisted essays and documentaries unwittingly attest, the notion of discovering the "real" Tupac Shakur is foolish. An actor to the core, Tupac was the sum of his impersonations. Sure enough, he seems most himself here when the role he has chosen is clearly defined: Tupac clowning around in a Rick James wig and exclaiming, "Whether I'm baldheaded or got hair down to my knees, I can still rush any of you tricks out there" is as much the "real" Tupac as the thug flashing his middle finger from the back of an ambulance. Tupac is hip hop's Charles Foster Kane, visible only through the lens of others.

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