***/**** Image B- Sound B Extras B+
directed by Nick Broomfield
by Bill Chambers A few days ago in THE HOT BUTTON, Dave Poland distinguished Nick Broomfield from his peers in the documentary field better--or, at least, more succinctly--than I've ever seen it done: "[Broomfield] creates an atmosphere in which you connect emotionally not with the characters in the film, but with his plight in trying to get his film made." That's certainly true of Broomfield's Biggie & Tupac, in which almost every sequence carries the subtext of peril: A bona fide Dante in headphones, Broomfield latches onto a Virgil (ex-police officer Russell Poole) who escorts him, more or less, through circles of Hell (the gang-marked territories of Compton, the rap-music industry, and finally prison). An alarming number of the director's interviews in Biggie & Tupac begin with a summary of attempts on the subject's life, and in a deleted scenes section on the DVD, we see that Broomfield tried and failed to chat with the owner of L.A.'s notorious "Last Resort," a bar at which gangbangers receive an ace-of-spades merit badge for their first killshot. A red ace means a flesh wound; a black ace means fatality.
Less sensationalistic--believe it or not--than Broomfield's last music exposé Kurt & Courtney, a film that derailed ever so compellingly until it was lobbing libellous murder accusations at Kurt Cobain's imbecilic and repulsive but likely innocent widow Courtney Love, Biggie & Tupac nevertheless has a sticky political façade, for a Caucasian hero (other than the unscathed Broomfield) emerges in what boils down to a portrait of black-on-black violence in the Serpico-esque Poole, a purebred cop forced to resign because he elected to blab about the corruption within the LAPD that surfaced during the investigation into the homicide of Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. "Biggie," "The Notorious B.I.G."). But there is little to no white judgment or imperiousness on display in Biggie & Tupac; rather, co-protagonists Broomfield and Poole are in continuous awe over the feuds between the Crips and the Pirus and the East and West coast record companies, turf wars that have accrued an impressive moral complexity. The only colour condemned is green, though the societal forces that bred the culprit of greed in Biggie's and Tupac's deaths are not, for the most part, on the film's agenda. Biggie & Tupac is a whodunit told in the fashion of a crime procedural.
Oddly, the picture's coup de grâce--face-time with Suge (pronounced "shug" (short for "sugar"), not "sooj" as this cracker once presumed) Knight, the cigar-chomping head of Death Row Records and Broomfield's number-one suspect in the demise of the titular rap stars (Tupac, Knight's cash cow, had planned on leaving Death Row; Broomfield and others speculate that Biggie was killed to throw people off Knight's scent in the Tupac case)--is half as thrilling as Kurt & Courtney's climactic appearance of Courtney Love. In Kurt & Courtney, Broomfield set out to assassinate Love's character--his inevitable encounter with her was proposed all along as a confrontation, while Knight, interviewed in the slammer on the eve of his 2001 parole, can't afford to indict himself like Love. The Compton-raised Knight, a missed opportunity when it came to the casting of Kingpin in Daredevil, delivers a disingenuous "message to the kids" that takes the edge off Biggie & Tupac but adds a dash of cynicism that's probably a virtue, as it makes for a penetrating parenthetical on today's role models.
Arriving on DVD from Razor & Tie in a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital stereo sound, the 16mm production Biggie & Tupac is not much to look at or to listen to, although Christian Henson's eerie score sounds dynamic spread across the front mains. Dialogue is always intelligible. Supplementary material is where the disc's strengths lie: Broomfield offers a feature-length yak-track wherein he familiarizes us with many of the problems a documentarian faces and discusses challenges specific to Biggie & Tupac--all with an admirable lack of overlap with his 14-minute interview elsewhere on the platter. There, he speaks candidly of the ways he attempted to protect himself while entrenched in the milieu of Biggie & Tupac. Broomfield additionally provides audio-only introductions to four unique sections ("Related Music," "Testaments to Biggie & Tupac," "L.A. Gang Story," "Failed Interviews") housing fifteen deleted scenes in total. Discographies for Biggie and Tupac, a filmography for Broomfield, text-based profiles of Biggie, Tupac, Knight, Poole, Kevin Hackie (a bounty hunter), Billy Garland (Tupac's biological father), Mopreme (Tupac's stepbrother), Voletta Wallace (Biggie's mother), and Reggie Wright Sr. (a smiling Compton bluecoat with a dark secret that's one of the film's best reveals), and the Christopher Wallace Memorial Foundation's manifesto round out the DVD. Originally published: April 14, 2003.