(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