It’s been 24 and 23 years since the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, respectively, were brutally gunned down, and their deaths have become the grist for so many narrative features and documentaries that some filmmakers are now returning for seconds. British director Nick Broomfield first explored the crimes in his 2002 doc “Biggie and Tupac,” which has long been seen as the standard-bearer when it comes to films on this oft-visited subject. So why, then, is he returning to the same landscape now?
Based on its title, “Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie & Tupac” looks to recontextualize the case by positing that Death Row Records founder, Marion “Suge” Knight, was the instigator of one murder. But Broomfield’s focus ends up being far too scattered. For a while it’s a biographical doc: At times he seems more interested in how a man like Knight, who came from a close-knit family, could become a representative for the gangster lifestyle. But too often he wants to discuss the same tired theories while making assertions in the hopes of being timely.
Broomfield has been documenting the music world for years, and while he trod similar true crime territory with his 1998 film “Kurt & Courtney,” he’s lately become interested in focusing on Black entertainers. His 2017 doc “Whitney Houston: Why Can’t I Be Me” being the biggest example. While Broomfield certainly seems familiar with the players he’s following, it’s less than ideal that a white British director is telling this story, let alone inserting himself into it: Wait until he asks a documentary subject if she can call up some Knight’s former “homies.”
More frustrating is Broomfield’s repetitious belief that so much of what happened with Death Row, and the murders of Biggie and Tupac, falls into the “few bad apples” mentality. The documentary starts out by interviewing Knight’s niece who reiterates that he was the baby of the family and that his parents were never divorced, as if that in itself is shocking.
This gets muddled later on when he introduces the documentary’s apparent smoking gun, Broomfield’s allegation that the LAPD was involved in the murders. Unfortunately, this narrative isn’t as revelatory as he seems to think it is. Many in true crime circles today assert that the LAPD had to have some involvement. Even the subject Broomfield seems most fascinated in, disgraced LAPD detective Russell Poole, has had his story told (starring Johnny Depp of all people).
That’s unfortunate because there are flashes of real personality in “Last Man Standing.” That section about Knight’s family is compelling. The Death Row founder is in the middle of a 28-year jail term for manslaughter. Hearing his niece discuss the family attempts to humanize someone who, as the story progresses, might not be worthy of that treatment. At one point Broomfield says it was hoped Knight’s success would inspire others from his Compton neighborhood, but the director never sees if any of that bore fruit.
The director’s the idea that Knight’s success and horror were both isolated events is contradicted by the numerous interviews with former colleagues and employees of Death Row, all of whom assert an atmosphere of gang violence and factionalism that anyone with a bare modicum of knowledge about race relations in this country could see tied into everything. The various former gang members who worked for Knight all say there was success and an aura of cool to being part of Knight’s world, but at the end of the day many of those same former friends ended up dead or broke.
Broomfield asserts that now that Knight is in jail many of his interviews were with people who had been too afraid to talk, and that their stories feel worthy of separate documentaries. Case in point, Knight’s former ward, singer Danny Boy, a.k.a Daniel Steward. Taken under Knight’s wing at just 15, Steward was a close confidante to the Death Row boss. Outside of that, it’s obvious this young man has a lot to say about the time he spent there and his own feelings about being part of it at such a young age that Broomfield doesn’t examine. At one point, Steward talks about singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to a dying Shakur and hearing it is chill-inducing.
But too often Broomfield leans into the outlandish, horrific elements that are sure to curl the hair of white middle America or those who have no idea about the East Coast/West Coast debate (which Small’s mother Violetta Wallace says was the easiest way to sell their murders). Discussions of Knight and Shakur’s personalities, and how the latter changed around Knight, are played over garish photos of the two degrading women. It’s difficult to take what the talking heads are saying when Broomfield splashes a photo of a naked Black woman — eyes covered by a black bar because…. I guess we want to protect something! — and Shakur’s head by her backside. If Broomfield wants to tell a serious story, he shows his own hand far too often.
In the end, “Last Man Standing” is a documentary for those who know next to nothing about Death Row or the deaths of Smalls and Shakur. It’s a decent Cliff’s Notes version of the narrative with glimmers of something far more fascinating. It just feels like Broomfield missed the point on saying anything ground-breaking.
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