- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

The names Biggie and Tupac may not mean anything to you, but the story of these two ill-fated subcultural icons is of operatic proportions. Welcome to the world of nouveau-riche hip-hop thuggery, where excess succeeds on a rags-to-riches arc that descends into jail cells and drive-by executions.

"Biggie and Tupac," the latest documentary by filmmaker Nick Broomfield, dredges up the sediment of two unsolved murder cases. The two rapper victims are Christopher Wallace (known by his hip-hop pseudonyms, Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G.), gunned down in front of the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997, and Tupak Shakur, shot several times in Las Vegas on Sept. 8, 1996, dying five days later.

That much, we knew.

But Mr. Broomfield, a Fleet Streetish Brit who enjoys trafficking in the seamier side of American pop culture (previous documentaries include "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam"), hacks away at this convoluted saga until it yields some semblance of sense and believability.

Traipsing around the blighted Brooklyn and Baltimore neighborhoods where Mr. Wallace and Mr. Shakur spent their respective childhoods, and sounding slightly less dandyish than Hugh Grant, Mr. Broomfield slyly plays the naif an unassuming gumshoe who's just looking for the facts, ma'am.

His overarching charge: that Marion "Suge" Knight, the bodyguard-turned-millionaire-record-exec, in concert with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), is behind both murders, which occurred under the watchful eye of FBI investigators concerned that rappers were becoming modern-day Black Panthers bent on fomenting insurrection.

Sound far-fetched? Sure. Yet Mr. Broomfield backs it up with seemingly credible testimony from an ex-LAPD detective, Russell Poole, who investigated the Wallace murder and was stonewalled after he uncovered the dirty-cop scenario.

Mr. Broomfield investigates another ex-LAPD officer, Kevin Hackie, now a bounty hunter in San Pedro, Calif., who says Mr. Knight orchestrated Mr. Shakur's murder to stop Mr. Shakur from leaving Death Row Records, the Los Angeles-based label that is the West side of rap's bicoastal feud (the East being New York-based Bad Boy Records, run by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs).

Mr. Knight's motive in offing Biggie Smalls, Mr. Hackie says, was to buttress the theory that the killings were knee-jerk gangland-style jobs.

Whatever the extent of Mr. Knight's involvement in the murders, at least this much seems clear: The mere mention of his name is enough to throw people into a state of clammy, evasive panic.

When questioning Frank Alexander, formerly Mr. Shakur's bodyguard, who retreated to a ranch in Orange County, Calif., Mr. Broomfield cites quotes about Mr. Knight from Mr. Alexander's book "Got Your Back: Protecting Tupac in the World of Gangsta Rap."

Upon hearing his own words read back to him, the former Mr. Universe tries to backpedal out of defaming the dreaded Mr. Knight, who was then languishing in Mule Creek Correctional Facility in Northern California in connection with a beating in MGM Grand Casino on the night of the Shakur shooting.

Mr. Knight was released in August 2001, and rappers including Snoop Dog are said to be fearing for their lives. But the gangsta rap industry has been defanged since those bloody days; it's now fronted by such tamer big mouths as Eminem, who, along with Ice Cube, is a budding movie star.

If Biggie and Tupac had lived, maybe they could have transitioned into this kinder, gentler environment.

"Biggie and Tupac" is, at bottom, a riveting human story. It's an old one, too narcissism run amok. Two mildly talented inner-city kids make oodles of cash and, sadly but understandably, buy into their own manufactured images.

Whether gangsta rap was life imitating art or the other way around doesn't really matter. On this side of reality, the bullets are real.

***

TITLE: "Biggie and Tupac" (playing at Visions Cinema for one week only)

RATING: R (Profanity, grisly crime-scene photographs)

CREDITS: Directed by Nick Broomfield

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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