September 18, 2002

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Life after death

Nick Broomfield's trails the hip-hop story that won't die.

By Johnny Ray Huston

 

Biggie and Tupac

THE MOST TALKED -about hip-hop documentary of the year has been made by a white Englishman with a receding hairline and a fashion sense that leans toward nylon bomber jackets and fanny packs.

If America is the land of opportunity, American opportunists could learn some tricks from Nick Broomfield. A magician's sense of timing, for a start: the British filmmaker's new documentary Biggie and Tupac receives its national commercial premiere at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema Sept. 18, less than two weeks after a seemingly played-out conflict involving hip-hop's two most famous names has once again become national news, thanks to a Los Angeles Times front-page story.

Broomfield has no smoking gun, no film or video footage of the murder of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.) in Los Angeles, or the Las Vegas killing of Tupac Shakur after a Mike Tyson heavyweight championship bout. The first shots in Biggie and Tupac are film shots of L.A. streets, not gunshots in L.A. streets. What Broomfield does possess is a novel filmic approach, a signature method of inserting and implicating himself as part of the madness his movies investigate.

Stepping in front of the camera to play the part of Nick Broomfield the documentarian, the director brings a weary world-wisdom and a willingness to look clumsy or foolish in his role. He first employed this self-incriminating method with the 1988 Broadway-musical doc Driving Me Crazy but truly honed it on subjects like Heidi and Kurt and Courtney (and before them, Aileen Wuornos) – celebrities, criminals, or celebrity-criminals identifiable by their first names. Like Kurt and Courtney, in fact, Biggie and Tupac is a two-stars-for-one deal in terms of commercial appeal. And that deal extends beyond Kurt and Courtney's visit to Northwest Babylon, spanning from East Coast to West Coast. More important, this film invokes the mortality and immortality of both names in the title.

Cynical? "You're nobody 'til somebody kills you," Wallace sang, as succinctly as ever, on 1997's seminal Life after Death album. Yet Wallace's harshly ironic line about the worth of black males in this country resonates in ways few of the multitudes of posthumous newspaper and magazine articles, books, television shows, and documentaries about him and Shakur seem to comprehend. Since Shakur was mortally shot on Sept. 7, 1996 (with more than 100 witnesses in the vicinity), and since an assailant shot and killed Wallace after a Soul Train Awards party on March 8, 1997 – almost six months to the day later – the one definite bitter truth regarding their deaths is that they've garnered money-driven (not music-focused) attention from white-run mainstream news media that were content to ignore or condemn both men while they were alive.

Disguise the limit

Coming across like a Robin Leach who muckrakes the rich and famous, Broomfield has always been up-front about the tabloid commercialism of his subject matter. But the comedy and complicity of Biggie and Tupac are underscored by an earnest respect for the titular figures that is new to Broomfield's work. In this real-to-reel murder mystery, the director navigates a maze similar to that of Randall Sullivan's recently published LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murder of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records' Suge Knight and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal. The subtitle of Sullivan's book proves at least one thing: Broomfield has more to work with than the wanna be-hitman rants of Kurt and Courtney's sub-GG Allin rocker El Duce.

Transforming police interviews, memos, clue forms, fact sheets, notes, lists, and reports into a narrative that links Marion "Suge" Knight – cofounder, CEO, and executive producer of Death Row Records, the Label Shakur signed to in October 1995 – to Los Angeles Police Department corruption and the murders of both Wallace and Shakur, Sullivan's book is thorough – if ultimately speculative. Yet Broomfield's Biggie and Tupac sometimes proves the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Near the end of his movie, the director reaches the door of Wallace's bodyguard Eugene Deal, a New York State parole officer whom, according to LAbyrinth, LAPD detectives consider the most reliable witness among the caravan accompanying Wallace on the night of his murder. "You was knockin' like you was scared," Deal says with a laugh, then gives Broomfield a brief tour of his apartment. Asked why his blinds are drawn, an amused Deal responds, "Windows open so everyone can see you is a white-person thing." Broomfield then shows him a composite sheet of suspects in the shooting of Wallace, and Deal immediately picks out Harry Billups (a.k.a. Amir Muhammed) as someone who was at the scene of the slaying. The LAPD, Deal says, had never shown him a photo of Billups.

This is the picture worth a thousand words – not the picture of Billups, but the image of Deal identifying him. In the wake of Broomfield's ambush interviews with corrupt ex-cops who choose each syllable with self-interest in mind, Deal's sincerity is convincing. "I believe you, actually," Broomfield says, and he sounds amazed.

This scene is included – albeit flattened into blunt reportage – in Sullivan's book, because LAbyrinth's protagonist, ex-LAPD detective Russell Poole, suspects Billups is the man who shot Wallace. In fact, LAbyrinth is primarily Poole's story, the tale of a white police officer who, through a mix of dedication and fate, discovered that numerous members of the LAPD, some claiming affiliation with the Bloods gang, provided "security" and other forms of work without permits for Knight's Death Row label in their free time. Poole also unearthed evidence of police brutality that soon blew up into the Rampart scandal. By the time Poole quit the force, that scandal had become the most expensive corruption probe in LAPD history.

But Sullivan has an added agenda. "You can't tell a story in which the good guy is a white detective and the villains are all black," freelance journalist Jan Golab says in the second-to-last chapter of LAbyrinth. "That isn't allowed, even if it's true." In supporting that statement, Sullivan exposes his weakness. Forget the reductiveness of good and bad, not to mention the denial of the possibility that they intermingle in a person. Sullivan's values and viewpoints prevent him from entertaining the idea that the two names who help sell his book might not be villains. In his book, the only good guy (besides a dedicated reporter, of course) is a white cop.

The Russell Poole in Biggie and Tupac is a different character, even if his moral character is the same. Mocking the "endless lunches and caviar directives" of Poole's legal advisors, Broomfield plays his initial failed attempts at filming the man for laughs: "How many more meals at Denny's would we have to eat before we got Russell's interview?" he asks. Finally captured by Broomfield's camera, Poole is all-American to a surreal degree. Another picture worth a thousand words: the first time Broomfield visits his office, a television on the wall above Poole's desk broadcasts Elvis. (The next time, Stevie Nicks is on the TV.) It's against this backdrop that Poole sends Broomfield off to talk to some of the same alleged key players in Sullivan's book.

Notorious N.I.C.K.

Broomfield's movie makes use of a familiar if problematic dramatic construct: the white hero seeking truth and justice for a pair of black martyrs. Its best moments subvert this setup with the comedy of watching a man who looks like an extra from a Men at Work video face the codified masculinity of law officers and rap figures. During a visit to Shakur's childhood neighborhood in Baltimore (a sequence that contextualizes urban blight better than any section in LAbyrinth), a police car shows up, and the driver threateningly asks Broomfield what he's doing. He swings his mic over to the car window. "Don't put that in my face," the cop snarls. "Well, you were asking me questions," Broomfield replies.

Pronouncing "Tupac" as "Two-pack" and Sean "Puffy" Combs's last name as "Coombs," Broomfield won't be writing for the Source anytime soon. But he grants Wallace and Shakur a respect that's absent from Sullivan's book. His opening voice-over is ridiculously simple: "This is the story of two great friends who had a misunderstanding. Biggie and Tupac always used to hang out together." The "always" is debatable, yet by the end of the movie, Broomfield made Wallace's and Shakur's talent and personalities, their broken bond, and lost lives, palpable. He avoids the consumer-driven personality-profile rules and restrictions of the Vibe articles (on Shakur in particular) that fanned the fatal flames of East Coast-West Coast rivalry. Biggie and Tupac suggests the pair became pawns in a broader scheme, but Broomfield never treats them as such.

He's helped by candid video footage. A clip of Shakur imitating Rick James during his years at Baltimore School of the Arts breaks out of thug iconography with a superfreaky ease that shames the stiff Hollywood roles he was cast in; equally absurd is a snippet of Shakur on the catwalk at a fashion show, strutting to the Germanic falsetto of Klaus Nomi's "Total Eclipse." In a studio clip that has been used in docs already, an older 'Pac is seen commanding, "Get that beat poppin'. Throw these niggas on the track – the name of this song is whatever this nigga [pointing] said." The fact that he recorded 67 songs in one 11-month period is evidence of a prolific imagination and a get-money mentality. It also suggests that he was in a hurry to fulfill his Death Row contract obligations.

Unlike the Behind the Music episode dedicated to Wallace, Broomfield's doc doesn't ruin street-corner freestyling footage of a pre-B.I.G. teenage Wallace by placing commentary on top of it – he knows to let the phenomenal rhythm and wit speak for itself. (Same goes for a spine-tingling clip of mourners at Wallace's street funeral procession spontaneously shifting to raging celebration when "Hypnotize" – with its shout out to "hooligans in Brooklyn" – booms from a stereo system.) But Broomfield's chief window into Wallace's life and death isn't old video: it's his mother, Voletta Wallace.

The sing-song intonations and carefully placed conversational pauses of Ms. Wallace provide pop vérité drama in the B.I.G. Behind the Music episode. She talks about entering her son's L.A. hotel room after his death: "I heard nothing. I heard the quiet flush of air conditioning." In Biggie and Tupac she rightly labels her son a "poet," even as she comically counters one of the most famous rhymes in the first Notorious B.I.G. album, Ready to Die ("It's hard being young from the slums / Eatin' five-cent gums / Not knowin' where you're next meal is comin' from"), with photo evidence of their well-stocked kitchen.

More important, her guidance is as crucial to Broomfield as Russell Poole's. After tramping with trademark gracelessness into a barbershop in Wallace's old hood looking for quotes, he relates via voice-over that Ms. Wallace soon called imploring him to "use a more ingratiating [interview] style." She is the one who brings Broomfield face to face with Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s Lil' Cease (James Lloyd Jr., who was with Biggie when he was shot), who, in providing a police composite of Wallace's killer, discovered in the process that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had Wallace and Combs under surveillance. Parole officer Deal is blunt before he identifies Billups as a man he encountered outside the Soul Train party at L.A.'s Peterson Museum shortly before Wallace was shot: "I wouldn't be talking to you if it wasn't for Ms. Wallace."

A Knight with armor

Biggie and Tupac's investigative path ultimately leads to Knight, and like Sullivan's LAbyrinth, that path is littered with bad lieutenants. Broomfield meets ex-LAPD officer and former Death Row employee Kevin Hackie at the office where he works as a bounty hunter, and gets a series of vague affirmative answers about Knight's involvement, each qualified with the phrase "in a sense." (Hackie is more forthcoming about the LAPD's links to Death Row.) Biggie and Tupac also makes a bizarre visit to the fortresslike mustang ranch of Frank Alexander, Shakur's bodyguard when he was shot in Las Vegas. Alexander has written a book (Got Your Back) about his experiences. But when Broomfield recites exact phrases from the book to him, he gets skittish, using a different ready-made phrase – "Words were circulated" – to modify claims that Knight orchestrated Shakur's murder and threatened to kill Alexander in the aftermath.

If Alexander fears Knight, he has some famous company. LAbyrinth alleges that, during a police interview, Snoop Dogg stated that Knight was responsible for Shakur's murder, a gesture that certainly wouldn't endear Snoop to his former boss, whose relationship with the rapper was complicated from the start because of gang-related conflicts. (Snoop identified as a Crip, while Knight has Blood ties.) A sequence late in Biggie and Tupac showcases the digital cartoon intro to Knight's Web site that touted his release from prison (after serving five years of his nine-year sentence for assault-related charges after the Las Vegas casino brawl that occurred hours before Shakur was killed) in the fall of last year. "All Doggs run and hide, Suge is coming home," the text proclaims, accompanying an audiovisual illustration of a whimpering dog put down by gunfire.

Since his release Knight has made some noteworthy public appearances. In January of this year, as one of four guest participants in a BET Tonight discussion of Shakur's legacy, his repeated insistence that Shakur would be outraged at all the books and videos profiting off of his death (as if he hasn't) was coupled with an underlying sense that he was a rightful owner of all memories of Shakur: though two of the other guests had interviewed Shakur more than once before Knight even met him, Knight repeatedly insisted only he "knew" Shakur. (During one awkward exchange he called journalist Kevin Powell a "street punk.") Six months later, at the BET Awards, host Steve Harvey addressed Knight from the stage during a commercial break, after the owner of Tha Row (no longer Death Row) took a vacant seat near Snoop Dogg's entourage and, according to BET.com, "exchanged words" with Snoop, who moved to another part of the theater.

Biggie and Tupac's last two major scenes are a study in contrasts. Broomfield one-ups Sullivan's book – and Poole's truncated police investigation, for that matter – by securing an interview with Knight, who was still incarcerated in Mule Creek State Prison near Sacramento. The trip searching for Knight gives Broomfield's photographer such a case of the shakes (at one point the camera faints to the ground) that the director is left to interview and film Knight solo, an approach that results in a few riveting if frustrating minutes. A cane-enabled Knight slowly ambles toward Broomfield's camera eye from the far distance of Mule Creek's recreation yard until ultimately the camera sluggishly rests on a closeup so extreme that it obscures the edges of Knight's head. Usually quick-witted, Broomfield mostly remains silent as Knight – who has refused to talk about either murder – provides what he hopes will be an inspirational "message for the kids": a rambling statement that ultimately amounts to "Don't be a snitch (like Snoop)." Knight's words say one thing. Broomfield's picture says another.

A typical Broomfield film might end at that moment, deep in the heart of cynicism and corruption. But Biggie and Tupac isn't a typical Broomfield movie; it closes with another trip, this one to Ms. Wallace's kitchen, for a taste of "Voletta's delicious appetizers" and a mother's memories of her son's tender side and wry sense of humor – the latter a quality Broomfield can certainly appreciate. "There is not one day that I spoke to him on the phone that I didn't laugh," Ms. Wallace says, and then tells a story that proves her point.

In a better world, this story would be about Wallace's continuing artistic legacy. It isn't. (The subject of at least three other docs and about a dozen books, the comparatively prosaic politicism of Shakur has received greater appraisal, though those assessments often favor adoration over critical thought.) "Back in that maze I sent ya," Wallace declares at one point on Ready to Die, and on Life after Death tracks such as "What's Beef" and "Niggas Bleed," his ability to combine labyrinthlike literary- and film-influenced noir narratives with dense internal rhymes and other forms of wordplay reached a still unmatched peak. Perhaps Wallace's story is the heart of Biggie and Tupac because his estate was more cooperative than Shakur's, but Broomfield gives him the attention he deserves. It's tempting to say that Wallace might have been able to solve the murder of Biggie Smalls in a rhyme, if only he hadn't been its victim.

'Biggie and Tupac' opens Wed/18, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. See Rep Clock, in Film Listings, for show times.