You can be the shit, flash the fattest five . . .
Have the biggest dick, but when your shell get hit
You ain't worth spit, just a memory

–Biggie Smalls

“You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)”

THERE ARE TWO FORMIDABLE PRESENCES IN Nick Broomfield's deceptively rambling, shrewdly ragtag documentary Biggie & Tupac, and they aren't those of either of the friend-turned-foe hip-hop martyrs whose brief lives, mysterious deaths and complicated legacies (but mainly their deaths) the film is about. The first is controversial Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight — or, more accurately, his perceived, almost mythical power, which casts a dark (and at times darkly hilarious) pall over the entire film. The other is Volletta Wallace, mom of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. rapper Biggie Smalls. Miss Wallace, whose round face glows when she talks about her son, gives the film not just its moral anchor — and outrage — but its heart as well. When Broomfield lets her know that he's having a hard time getting any of Biggie's acquaintances to speak on-camera, the film immediately cuts to a shot of Miss Wallace picking up her phone and dialing. A short while later, Lil' Cease, one of Biggie's protégés and closest friends, is sitting reluctantly before the camera as Miss Wallace looks on.

The timing of Biggie & Tupac's long-delayed release looks now like a fortuitous stroke of luck. The hip-hop community is still reeling from Chuck Philips' September 6 and 7 exposé in the Los Angeles Times, in which he traces the deaths of the two rappers to a 1996 altercation between Tupac's bodyguard, who had ties to the Bloods, and the late Orlando Anderson, who was a Crip. According to Philips, that event set the stage for the spiraling violence that would eventually claim the lives of the two rappers, both of whose prophetic obsessions with their own deaths permeated their music. The article's main controversy lies in its claim that it was Biggie who had Tupac killed, agreeing to pay the Crips $1 million for the deed, and even personally supplied the murder weapon in Las Vegas on the night that Pac was murdered. Philips never does explain how the world-famous, aptly named Biggie — whom he alleges was in Vegas on the night of a highly publicized Mike Tyson fight, when the city was crawling with both paparazzi and Negroes who'd instantly recognize the rapper — was able to slip in and out of the city with no one, save unnamed informants, seeing him or even knowing about his being there until Philips broke the story six years later. (Biggie's camp has angrily denied the claim, stating that the rapper was in New Jersey at the time of Pac's death.)

Three years in the making, Biggie & Tupac provides a riveting, almost point-by-point refutation of the Times article, although that was obviously not its intention. The film's greatest triumph is in the way it demystifies and dismantles the very thug/gangsta mystique that Philips' two-part article ended up reinforcing. The mountains of interviews, case files and evidence that Broomfield sifts through finger Suge Knight and the much-scandalized LAPD (whose corruption apparently has no bounds) as the true culprits, with Miss Wallace tracing the deadly feud, along with the whole contrived East Coast-West Coast rivalry, to a beef between Suge Knight and Biggie's friend/producer/label boss Puff Daddy. Sitting in her home office, flanked by portraits of her boy and speaking in a soft Jamaican lilt, Miss Wallace stares straight into the camera and says, “All it was is a Puffy and Suge Knight war. Suge Knight, for some reason, had a friend or a cousin or a nephew [who] got shot in Atlanta. He blamed Puffy and all hell break loose. So, if that's the case, Puffy and Suge Knight, solve your damn problem! C'mon, now! You're messing with lives here. Two lives were lost as a result of what? Stupidity.”

BROOMFIELD IS ENERGIZED BY VOLLETTA Wallace's maternal fury, her fearlessness, and because of that, his film crackles. In his best-known documentaries, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), Heidi Fleiss Hollywood Madam (1995) and Kurt & Courtney (1998), he wallowed in the tawdry, shamelessly bringing tabloid aesthetics and ethics to his “investigative” reporting. Maybe the difference this time lies in the fact that, in Biggie & Tupac, Broomfield is dealing with subjects who have already been so incredibly caricatured and misrepresented that the director was driven to new and higher levels of integrity just for the sake of developing a fresh angle on his characters.

It could also be that in turning over the stones of the two rappers' media personas, he discovered that who these young men were in private — often in stark contrast to their public images — was among the most shocking revelations he could bring. Biggie, contrary to his rapped tales of living in a one-room shack and going hungry, actually went to private school and had a cushy childhood; an old neighborhood friend scoffs at his tales of slinging crack and snatching purses and chains. “No,” he laughs, “not Christopher. He was a sweetheart.” Tupac, who perfectly embodied the equation that gangsta rap was born of real-life single black moms and reel-life Italian gangsters, was a voracious reader and a natural charmer who studied ballet, drama and literature as a child, despite the turmoil of having a Black Panther-turned-crack-addict mother and a string of addresses that were only temporarily called home. His biological father (whom the rapper didn't meet until late in his life) offers that “He wasn't the favorite son that everybody's pretending that he is now. [When Tupac became a star is when] he became the favored son.”

Armed with previously unseen home movies and rarely seen behind-the-scenes footage, and crisscrossing the country from Baltimore to Oakland, Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Broomfield fleshes out interviews with childhood friends, family members (Tupac's mom, Afeni Shakur, who controls his estate along with Death Row Records, is conspicuously absent) and former members of the rappers' inner circles. Former LAPD Detective Russell Poole — who, next to Miss Wallace, emerges as a true hero of the film — and former LAPD Officer Kevin Hackie guide the viewer through a Byzantine timeline and collection of data, and this is where Broomfield's shtick as the relentlessly probing, curious but slightly daft white Brit most effectively pays off. With his deadpan delivery of questions and asides, and with the camera and boom mike jutting clumsily into the frame, Broomfield creates a proxy observer for the audience, particularly for mainstream viewers who may know little or nothing of the rappers or the worlds they rapped about.

But the film's platinum moment, when Broomfield finally interviews Suge Knight at Mule Creek Correctional Facilities, is powerful precisely for being such a letdown. Knight's weight has floated throughout the film. His threatening presence looms in interviews with Tupac's stepbrother, Mopreme, who tries to sidestep questions of Suge's influence on the rapper. It's felt in the almost visible trembling of a former bodyguard of Pac's who, though massively built, has retired to a private ranch and turned his life over to Jesus Christ — and just in case Jesus gets distracted, the man owns a snarling pack of rottweilers. When we finally meet Knight, who's hobbling on a cane, he bobs and weaves on questions about Pac, preferring to offer words of encouragement “to the children.” With his eyes darting and his speech rambling, he's hardly the Faustian figure we've been prepped for; even the director's disappointment is palpable.

The “showdown” with Knight, along with sundry incriminating revelations turned up throughout the film, has led to Broomfield being cited for bravery. And to some degree, he deserves it. (Even as he chides his cinematographer for having the jitters in the Mule Creek recreation yard, his own sense of fear and dislocation is palpable.) Still, if the truth be known, Broomfield's whiteness is his bulletproof vest. A few years ago when it was all the rage for disgruntled Negro rappers to assault critics and journalists, it wasn't Caucasian writers who were affected, and it wasn't the offices of Spin, Rolling Stone or Details that got trashed. For all their swagger, menace and bravado, hip-hop's gangstas and thugs are a thoroughly domesticated breed. They know who to fuck with and who to leave alone. And — as the corpses of Biggie and Tupac verify — they know which lives are disposable.

BIGGIE & TUPAC | Directed by NICK BROOMFIELD | Produced by MICHELLE D'ACOSTA | Released by Roxy Releasing | At Laemmle Sunset 5, Magic Johnson Theaters, Laemmle Playhouse 7

LA Weekly