Free time over the festive period? Nick Broomfield’s fascinating documentaries investigating the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. and the East Coast West Coast rap feud of the 1990s make for compelling viewing.
Nick Broomfield made a name for himself in the 1990s and 2000s as a kind of lo-fi Gonzo documentary film maker covering some of the darker news stories, cultural events and people of the time – Aileen Wournos, convicted serial killer, the death of Kurt Cobain, rock star, and Republican vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin are amongst his subjects.
Perhaps Broomfield’s most famous work is Biggie and Tupac, released in 2002. With the help of a cast of associates of the two rappers, family members, ex-cops and convicted felons, and finally, a shaky interview with imposing and imprisoned Death Row records mogul, Suge Knight, the film maker attempts to unlock the truth behind the killings of two or raps biggest stars of the era. In 2021, close to two decades on, a follow-up, Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac was released re-assessing some of the findings from the first film and reflecting on the culture of the hip-hop scene that was the backdrop to the murders.
Fans of hip hop, students of film, or just those fascinated by the noir-ish narratives that led to the terrible killings will enjoy watching Broomfield’s weaving investigation in the first of the two films in which he alleges that Suge Knight was ultimately responsible for both murders, having Tupac shot before he could leave the Death Row records label, and then ordering the shooting of Biggie in an attempt to divert attention from his involvement in the first crime.
Central to the whole story is an ex-cop called Russell Poole and an ex-con called Kevin Hackie who alleges LAPD involvement in Biggie’s murder. Since the film’s release its version of events and the credibility of its witnesses has been questioned and alternatives put forward, most notably that Tupac’s murder was to avenge a beating dished out to a Southside Crip gang member by him and Knight earlier in the evening on the night of the crime.
But whether or not you are ready to give credence to Broomfield’s original investigation, and the unsavoury characters who come forward, it remains compelling stuff. You might well find yourself questioning the veracity of their stories, but watching the film-maker’s low-key, almost amateur approach is enjoyable in itself.
And if you think Biggie and Tupac makes for interesting viewing then you will almost certainly want to follow up with this year’s Last Man Standing, a chance for Broomfield to re-visit the storyline. The premise for the documentary in this case is that Suge Knight has now been locked-up for 28 years for voluntary manslaughter, making associates more likely to speak out as his power wanes. There is further testimony that Knight ordered Biggie Smalls’ killing from prison and there are also more suggestions that the LAPD cooperated, notably from Michelle Parks the daughter of former LAPD chief, Bernard Parks.
Fascinating too in Last Man Standing is the profile of Tupac that paints the picture of an idealistic young man and extremely talented actor and rapper who was drawn into the toxic world of Suge Knight and Death Row Records and paid the ultimate price. “He was a very kind-hearted person,” recalls his friend Demetrius Striplin. “He got lost in the image of being tough.”
Meanwhile, the wider story of the East Coast West Coast feud is expanded upon. It’s tale of anger and retribution been told many times over, inspiring books, movies, and even online games. Ultimately, it comes across as tiresome, full of tit for tat disses and spiteful swipes at the opposition, simmering away for several years, swirling around the relationship between Tupac and Biggie’s estranged wife, Faith Evans, stoked by Knight and eventually culminating in the two shootings. Above all when you watch these fascinating documentaries you can’t help but be left with a sense of tragedy and regret. With the main protagonists all dead or imprisoned, what was it all for?
Well, now you can find out for yourself … the original Biggie and Tupac film is available on Amazon Prime, whilst the Last Man Standing follow-up can be seen on the BBC iPlayer.