From looking at him, you wouldn’t think documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield would care about a couple of gangsta rappers. In fact, Broomfield - a soft-spoken Brit who appears to be in his early to mid-40’s – looks like he’d rather listen to anything but rap music. Looks can be deceiving, though. Broomfield has made a career tracking unlikely subjects, from Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss to grunge rockers Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain (whose suicide he probed so fascinatingly in Kurt and Courtney). The documentarian’s latest film, Biggie & Tupac, which is available on video and DVD, examines the unsolved murders of two of rap’s biggest superstars, Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.) and Tupac Shakur.
The thing about Biggie and Tupac is that they tweaked their own histories. Biggie rapped about living in a “one-room shack” but his mother attests onscreen that this was not true. Tupac rapped about thug life, but he actually had a culturally enriched childhood. His mother Afeni, a former Black Panther, gave Tupac the chance to study the arts, and he attended a reputable school to learn acting technique. Gangsta rap demands a certain image, however. The rags-to-riches story is essential in order to earn “street cred.” Thus, both Biggie and Tupac adopted a lifestyle that was somewhat counter to how their loved ones knew them.
Problems started when someone shot Tupac. He survived, then blamed Biggie for orchestrating the shooting. (Tupac was also claiming an affair with Biggie’s wife.) In 1996, someone shot Tupac again, this time fatally, following a Mike Tyson boxing match in Las Vegas. A few months later, someone shot and killed Biggie. Supposedly it was part of the whole east coast/west coast rivalry in rap music. The west coast was dominated by Death Row Records mogul Marion "Suge” Knight, while the main guy back east was Sean “Puffy” Combs. Word began to circulate that Biggie had been killed in retaliation for the death of Tupac. L.A.’s seminal gangs the Bloods and the Crips were supposedly tied in with the record execs as well.
An LAPD officer named Russell Poole investigated the case and found that was only part of the story. He believed that several of his fellow cops were on the payroll at Death Row Records. Poole contended that these dirty cops were hired by Suge Knight to kill Tupac because the rapper was planning to leave the label and potentially bring about a damaging lawsuit for unpaid royalties. Furthermore, Poole believed that Biggie was killed to divert attention from Death Row – to make it look like a Bloods/Crips feud. In other words, his murder was a red herring, ordered by Knight to cast blame for Tupac’s death somewhere else.
Broomfield attempts to prove Poole right. He interviews various people connected with both killings, including Shakur’s bodyguard, who went into hiding, fearing that Suge would come after him next. Broomfield also tracks down another LAPD member who was on the Death Row payroll. This officer – somewhat reluctantly – backs up Poole’s version of events. Near the end – in an astonishing display of chutzpah – Broomfield finagles an interview from Suge Knight himself (who was behind bars at the time). Knight clearly misunderstands Broomfield’s intentions; he announces that he wants to make a statement “for the kids” which nonetheless turns out to be a de facto death threat against rapper Snoop Dogg.
What’s astonishing about this case is that the LAPD stonewalled Poole’s investigation when he began pointing fingers at other cops. Poole quit the force in disgust. The LAPD officers in question were never grilled about their possible involvement; the whole thing was basically brushed under the carpet. Near the end of the film, Broomfield visits Biggie’s bodyguard, who was right there the night Biggie was shot. Broomfield shows him a picture of the cop Poole alleged to have killed Biggie. The bodyguard’s expression drops when he sees the photo. “That’s the guy who pulled up and shot Biggie,” he says. “I never forget a face.”
Broomfield is unrelenting in his quest to get answers. In his films, he often uses a Columbo technique; he plays dumb, then gives his interview subjects just enough rope to hang themselves. Although he doesn’t prove anything per se, Broomfield makes an undeniably compelling case that Suge Knight was behind both murders and that LA cops were the trigger men. Watching this film, it’s hard not to believe that a cover-up has prevented the truth from coming out.
Biggie & Tupac is an engrossing documentary from start to finish, and the DVD contains additional deleted scenes that provide even more insight into this true life crime. Also on the disc is a commentary from Bloomfield, as well as biographies of the titular rappers. Whether you like rap music or loathe it, you can’t deny the tragedy of the murders or the power of this movie.
( 1/2 out of four)
Biggie & Tupac is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.
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