Too Young to Take the Rap

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Review of 'Biggie and Tupac', director Nick Broomfield

In September 1996 Tupac Amaru Shakur (2Pac) was shot dead in Las Vegas. Six months later Christopher Wallace aka Biggie Smalls aka Notorious BIG suffered the same fate in Los Angeles. In the period before they were killed, the two men were arguably the biggest rap stars on the planet. To this day neither murder has been solved.

The conventional account of the murders was that 2Pac and Biggie went from being good friends to being deadly rivals attached to fiercely competing record companies and gangs. This led to 2Pac's murder, which was then avenged by Biggie's death. This extraordinary film by British documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield retraces the lives of the two rappers and re-examines the circumstances in which they died, including revealing new evidence which suggests the blame lies elsewhere.

Broomfield uses a highly effective mixture of interviews and archive footage to tell his story, skilfully interwoven with rap music and threaded together with narration by Broomfield himself, both on and off camera. Initially his style reminds you of Louis Theroux, but Broomfield is a more subtle and brave director-journalist. His unassuming yet persistent style yields some extraordinary admissions from interviewees ranging from bent cops, to the rappers' families to gang bosses.

In other hands a film about 'gangsta' rap might have fallen into the trap of either moralising about or else simply glorifying the world it portrays. Biggie and Tupac credits the viewer with more intelligence, making for a compelling investigative piece which also manages to be a marvellous portrait of a hip-hop business and culture that goes to the heart of the tensions festering under the surface of US society.

The early part of the film, dealing with the earlier lives of 2Pac and Biggie, is fascinating and moving. We are left with a picture of two complex individuals, far removed from the media caricature of the one-sided monstrous gun-toting 'gangsta' rapper. 2Pac's mother and stepfather were both members of the Black Panthers. 2Pac is shown to be a charismatic, fun-loving and sensitive character, who studied dance and poetry and won acclaim for his acting, while at the same time being a volatile man, prone to violence and misogyny. His songs' lyrics reflect this, glorifying the 'thug life' at the same time as attacking the endemic racism and poverty of America.

Biggie's Jamaican-born mother, Voletta Wallace, is a sympathetic and warm presence throughout the film, and her testimony, along with interviews with Biggie himself, shows a marked contrast to the dramatic ghetto persona that was the Notorious BIG. It reveals a thoughtful, wry and much loved character.

In both cases we are left feeling that the violence and thug talk are played up by a record business which is happy to sell the worst aspects of the lives of ordinary black Americans back to them. The two souls of black music are unveiled--a culture that can unite, empower and reflect some of the reality of life, or else a means of getting rich enough to escape the ghetto. The latter path is that taken by Suge Knight, boss of 2Pac's label Death Row Records. The film shows how Knight, a multi-millionaire made from selling 'gangsta' rap records, ruthlessly played up competition with the New York based Bad Boy label of Sean 'Puffy' Coombs (aka Puff Daddy), in order to boost sales. At the same time Knight would turn vicious the minute any artist tried to take their music elsewhere. Remarkably, Broomfield manages to get an interview with Knight from the prison where he was serving a nine-year term for parole violation. Broomfield's close up camera enables the viewer to judge the truthfulness or otherwise of his subjects, and what might have been a bleak journey is frequently punctuated with humour, usually springing from the director/narrator's banter with his interviewees. Whether you're a fan of rap music or not is irrelevant. Anyone could enjoy this utterly engrossing film.