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With: The Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls), Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Nick Broomfield
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 108
Date: 01/11/2002

Biggie and Tupac (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Getting a Bum Rap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In late 1996 and early '97, respectively, rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (aka Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G.) were shot and killed. The word that circulated was that their deaths resulted from the long-standing rivalry between East Coast rap (Biggie) and West Coast rap (Tupac). In Biggie and Tupac, fearless documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, best known for the scandalous Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Kurt and Courtney, digs a little deeper. With cooperation from Biggie's mom Voletta Wallace, he reveals almost hapahazardly a conspiracy originating with Tupac's record label, Death Row, and its godfather-like ruler "Suge" (pronounced "shug") Knight. This controversial, downright dangerous, film opens today at the Roxie.

Broomfield begins with an introduction to the two rappers, who began as friends. (There's even footage of the pair hugging on stage in front of fans.) The backstory is that Death Row owed Tupac some $10 million. Tupac threatened to quit and to have the label audited. But he was killed before that happened. Many believed Knight was linked to the crime, but before any connections could be established, Biggie was killed, providing a distraction that some observers saw as a smokescreen. Broomfield discovers that Death Row hired off-duty Los Angeles cops for day-to-day security; in return, they played dumb when the label's artists got mixed up in any wrongdoings -- from drugs to murder. Broomfield speaks with two of the cops, who nervously try to explain what happened without implicating themselves. He also manages an interview with a man imprisoned for posing as a lawyer who illegally transferred funds for Knight; the scene helps make the case against Knight.

On the other side of the controversy, Broomfield spends a lot of time with Biggie's mother -- a warm and powerful presence -- and many of Biggie's friends, discussing Biggie's murder. Broomfield interviews Eugene Deal, a friend of Biggie's who was present the night of Biggie's murder. Broomfield shows him a photo of the suspected shooter, whom Deal fingers immediately. Broomfield asks if Deal had seen the photo when questioned by police, and Deal says no. Broomfield also scores an interview with Knight, who is serving his final few months in prison on charges unrelated to the murders. While Knight evades the question of what happened to Biggie and Tupac, he makes veiled threats to rapper Snoop Dogg, who also works for Death Row and was apparently having money troubles similar to Tupac's.

In the end, Biggie and Tupac tells an amazing story. But Broomfield himself is equally amazing. A balding British chap with a medium build, he stumbles through the film, appearing in front of the camera carrying his trademark boom mike, even though he doesn't need it with today's digital technology. Though his questions seem halting and unprepared, they're crafted to let his interviewees think they have an upper hand. It works; his subjects confide in him time after time. The film has a blundering quality, which suggests it might not encompass the whole truth. Given the potential tangle of red tape and legal loopholes, one wonders how Broomfield managed to get it made at all.

Biggie and Tupac is so single-mindedly daring, it puts far more polished documentaries to shame. Broomfield's presence makes the Biggie and Tupac register with significance. He acts as our conduit into this world of real-life gangsters. We wince as he gets into potentially dangerous situations, and we learn to trust and believe him. Broomfield belongs with a handful of "auteur" documentarians, such as Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), Chris Marker (Sans soleil) and Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control), and that's high praise. In the end, despite the film's messiness, it's difficult to refute the notion that Knight had both rappers killed -- Tupac to protect his business interests and Biggie to cover up the first murder.

An interesting footnote: Unrelated to the movie, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that Biggie was hired to orchestrate Tupac's killing. If you see Biggie & Tupac, you'll find that hard to believe.

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