Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac


Scene of the crime.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Nick Broomfield, Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Danny Boy, Pam Brooks, Simone Green, Lipp Dogg, Mob James, Leila Steinberg, Russell Poole, Doug Young, Krystal Anderson, Joe Cool, Alison Samuels, Xavier Hermosillo, Tracy Robinson, Yaasmyn Fula, Greg Kading, Frank Alexander, Violetta Wallace, Delores Tucker, C-Style, Tracy Robinson. Directed by Nick Broomfield

 

During the rise of hip-hop in the 1990s, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls, were two powerhouse figures in the genre. They had been close friends for many years, but became bitter rivals after Shakur finished a jail term (for sexual assault) and after being bailed out by Death Row records label chief Marion “Suge” Knight, became a member of that roster. Both men however, met the same end – gunned down in the prime of their careers in homicides that to this day remain unsolved.

British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield was drawn to the parallel stories and in 2002 made a film called Biggie and Tupac which looked at the lives of both men, culminating in their murders. At the core of the cases stood Suge Knight, a man who ran his record label very much like a criminal gang boss. His entourage included many members of the Bloods gang and red – the gang color of the Bloods – was in evidence throughout the label’s offices and on the person of Knight and his crew.

Knight is currently serving a 28-year sentence of voluntary manslaughter for deliberately running down Terry Carter, a friend and founder of Heavyweight Records, in the parking lot of a burger joint following an argument on the set of Straight Outta Compton. With the notoriously volatile and vengeful Knight tucked away in prison, Broomfield thought it was time to revisit the story and talk to those who were reluctant to talk to him earlier for fear of reprisals from Knight.

The results here aren’t as game-changing as you might think. Certainly there is some new information here, much of it revolving around the role of crooked L.A. cops who were essentially on the payroll of Death Row records, but not really a significant amount. Most of the investigative work came from Russell Poole, a former l.A. cop whose investigations into the Shakur murder would lead to him getting fired and shunned by his former colleagues. Poole, who passed away from a heart attack in 2015, provides much of his testimony in archival interviews with Broomfield, some dating back to the original Biggie and Tupac sessions.

Broomfield is something of a guerilla filmmaker who got a reputation as an in-your-face interviewer. He has thrived with reluctant interviewees. With most of the people here – employees of Death Row, friends and associates of Knight, Shakur and Wallace – almost eager to tell their stories, he seems a little bit out of his element.

There is a great deal of commentary on the gang culture that was tangled in the hip-hop scene of the time, and particularly at Death Row. Although some speak of Knight with fondness, there’s no doubt that he is a ruthless man with a criminal mentality. He had a great ear for talent, yes, having helped with the careers of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, along with Tupac, but at the end of the day he likely did hip-hop as much harm as he did good.

In any event, there’s not a lot here that hasn’t been covered in other documentaries and those who have seen a lot of them on the lives of Biggie, Tupac and Death Row will probably not find this a terribly useful or enlightening work. Those who are less familiar with the murders, this is as good a place as any to get informed.

REASONS TO SEE: The story remains as compelling as it ever has.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy and a bit repetitive at that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity including drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original score was written by, of all people, Nick Laird-Clowes of the dreampop band Dream Academy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Alliances Broken

All Eyez on Me


Everyone wants to rap with ‘Pac.

(2017) Musical Biography (CODEBLACK) Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Hill Harper, Annie Ilonzeh, Lauren Cohan, Keith Robinson, Jamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana, Cory Hardrict, Clifton Powell, Jamie Hector, DeRay Davis, Chris Clarke, Ronald Brooks, Jarrett Ellis, Erica Pinkett, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Josh Ventura, Chanel Young. Directed by Benny Boom

 

Tupac Shakur remains one of the most vital and influential artists of the 20th century; while there have been documentaries on his brief but meteoric life, there hasn’t been a biopic up until now. Shipp as ‘Pac is a dead ringer for the late rapper and displays at least some of the charisma that Tupac possessed; some have groused that Shipp is not even close in that aspect but that’s like bitching about a match because it isn’t the sun. For my money he did a pretty decent job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

The movie is a touch over two hours long and sadly you feel every moment of it. We get little sense of Tupac the artist and instead we spend a whole lot of time seeing Tupac the party animal. The movie reinforces a lot of the stereotypes Middle America has of rap culture – the misogyny, the violence, the drugs and alcohol and the conspicuous consumption. At no point during the course of the movie do we see Tupac actually creating anything; mostly we see him railing against the forces that were against him, hanging out with his boys and getting in confrontations with rivals. We get the highlights of his turbulent life and most of the soundtrack is made up of his more pop-oriented songs which may serve as a nice introduction to those unfamiliar with his work but will likely frustrate his fans.

Shakur is one of the most important artists of the last decade of the 20th century and his genius reverberates through modern rap without any let-up since his 1996 murder (which remains unsolved to this day) at the age of 25. He deserves a film that is as powerful as the music he created, but this isn’t it. What this is however is a fairly bland introduction to the life and music of Tupac and for now it will just have to do.

REASONS TO GO: Shipp is a star in the making.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie concentrates too much on the parties and the thug life and not enough on Tupac as an artist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shipp’s father worked with Death Row Records as a producer and produced some of Tupac’s work near the end of his life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straight Outta Compton
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cars 3

Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape