He has been called the thug Elvis and Malcolm X reborn as a rapper. Since he predicted his own demise and since the movie of his life and death is called Tupac: Resurrection, we may as well surrender to hip-hop hype and say Tupac Shakur was the gangsta Jesus. True to his cult status, Shakur's myth blossomed after his death. So did his estate. It earned a lively $12 million last year. As with the deaths of so many celebs, his was a pity, an irony, a great career move.
Shakur, who was gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996, packed a lot of brutality and poetry into his 25 turbulent years on earth. Lauren Lazin's zippy documentary is as close as the dead can come to writing autobiography; its narration is woven from extensive interviews given by the charismatic antihero. Like a film noir epic, this is a fable of violent men, mean motives and surly patter, told in flashback, and narrated by a dead man. This artful assembly of photos, film outtakes and TV clips is all the more fascinating for being--within the confines of show-biz mythmaking--true.
Tupac was the son of Afeni Shakur, an officer in the Black Panther Party. The boy's feelings for his mother were a jumble of resentment ("I always felt she spent more time with the People than with her people"), sorrow (for her drug habit) and loving respect.
At school he studied dance, theater, art. In another environment, this bright, friendly kid could have become Will Smith or Wayne Brady. But rap's siren song called, and with it a rap sheeta gangsta's bona fides. As he says, "I had no police record until I made a record." Before he was 20, he went gold with the CD 2Pacalypse Now and joined the thug elite. "I didn't create thug life," he protested. "I diagnosed it." But he also lived it and paid for it.
Marianne Moore said poetry is a world of "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Shakur's poetry, spitting out violent imagery with an oracular tinge, was a summary and prophecy of his own brief life: an imaginary Uzi with real bullets. In his work, poignant portraits of ghetto misery (the brilliantly elegiac Brenda's Got a Baby) collided with cop-baiting insurrectionism ("Can't find peace on the streets/til the niggaz get a piece, f___ police, hear them screamin'").
On the streets, the rapper couldn't find peace and didn't make it. Pummeled by cops after an arrest for jaywalking in 1991, he sued the Oakland Police Department for $10 million (and got $42,500). It didn't always go his way. He beat several assault charges before doing jail time for sexual abuse of a woman.
Which was the real Shakur? Was he the congenial fellow chatting with his MTV confessor Tabitha Soren and explaining cultural inflections? ("Niggers is the guys strung up by a rope during a lynching. Niggaz is the guys walking past the velvet rope on their way into the club.") Or The west coast warrior exchanging rhetoric and artillery in dissing contests with his bitter rivals, East Coast hip-hoppers Biggie Smalls and Puffy Combs? Shakur had been an actor since childhood and showed real gifts in the films Juice and Gridlock'd. Maybe Thug Tupac was one more fictional character, which he acted out with a Method man's frightening authenticity.