REVIEW: "Biggie & Tupac" Makes for Ideal Broomfield Fare
by Andy Bailey
[EDITOR’S NOTE: : This review originally ran in January 2002 as part of indieWIRE’s Sundance 2002 coverage. Lions Gate releases the film on Friday.]
In “Biggie & Tupac,” scandal-mongering documentarian Nick Broomfield drains more pop cultural pus from a subject that sits nicely alongside the feisty Brit’s growing canon of trashy exposés on female serial killers, Hollywood madams, volatile grunge couples and high-priced dominatrixes. Broomfield has made a career of trailing after assorted scumbags while providing a wry, often bemused running commentary on the dubious nature of his work. He’s equally fascinated and repulsed by his larger- or lower-than-life subjects, and he’ll drag his camera anywhere, especially if it means a slammed door in his face.
The film examines the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, two childhood friends-turned-rap superstars whose falling-out sparked a notorious cross-coastal feud that resulted in both performers’ deaths in 1996 and 1997, respectively. There are various theories floating around about who killed the two men–no one has been convicted of either crime–and Broomfield does his typical slapdash job of rounding up the usual suspects. Loose ends and false leads are a hallmark of Broomfield’s work, and this film is no different. It’s the dead ends that make his documentaries so riveting.
After a quick résumé of Tupac and Biggie’s simultaneous ascents to stardom, Broomfield goes straight for the punch. He tracks down former police detective Leonard Poole, who believes that both men were murdered by two rogue L.A.P.D. cops hired by Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight, who reportedly has reasons for wanting both men dead. (Shakur had supposedly threatened to leave Death Row with some unreleased tracks, and Smalls was signed by Knight’s cross-coast rival Sean “Puffy” Combs, who was rumored to have ordered a hit on one of Knight’s Atlanta cohorts.)
Then it’s off to New York, where Broomfield drops in on Violetta Wallace, Biggie’s saintly mother who, after politely suggesting that Broomfield adopt a more “ingratiating” attitude toward his subjects, fixes the director some chicken soup. So much for emotional distance.
Broomfield has become familiar for his laconic accent and his bemused, off-the-cuff interviewing technique and his willingness to point his camera almost anywhere, even if it’s clear he’s scared shitless. This film is no different; it has enough awkward moments to qualify it as another triumph in faux-guerrilla reportage. The director is as much the star of his own documentaries as the sordid sleazeballs he visits in housing projects and dingy office parks, and his running commentary is often stinging and hilarious. (“I never realized how many more meals we’d have to eat at Denny’s before we got Poole’s testimony,” Broomfield quips early on in the film.)
Broomfield’s weakness as a documentarian lies in his preference for going to the fringes for information rather than straight to the top. Not once in “Biggie & Tupac” does he attempt to interview high-placed officials in the L.A.P.D. or the F.B.I.; he’d rather talk to rogue cops thrown off the force or former F.B.I. agents who might have been present at a Vibe Magazine awards show in Los Angeles where Biggie had made an appearance hours before his shooting death.
A high point in the film comes about halfway through, when Broomfield presents the theory that the F.B.I. may have organized the hits on Biggie and Tupac in an effort to create dissent within the hip-hop community. This is a fascinating claim that Broomfield pursues as far as he possibly can, and as a result “Biggie & Tupac” is the most bold and thorough work in the director’s filmography.
Broomfield’s trump card comes in the form of a late-hour interview with Suge Knight, which encapsulates the filmmaker’s distinct brand of queasy intrepidness. With the help of a prison warden, Broomfield and his visibly terrified cameraman (who keeps filming the sky, afraid to point the camera at the bulky, cigar chomping Knight) have a brief prison-yard encounter with the much-feared Knight, who naturally refuses to talk on camera about his role in the Shakur and Smalls killings, opting instead to make a plea “for the children.” Broomfield films it anyway, and Knight looks like a buffoon. Broomfield and his cameraman make fools of themselves as well, but you can’t turn your eyes away and balk even if you wanted to.