Coast to Coast:
Nick Broomfield Discusses Biggie and Tupac
April 27, 2003 | Documentarian Nick Broomfield has spent the last three decades building a reputation for making gritty, muckraking investigative pieces that leave no detail unexplored in pursuit of the truth. Rather than employing the sneaky editing and crowd-pleasing humor of Michael Moore or the passive observation of the Maysles brothers, Broomfield takes the most direct route for any question he has: Walking directly up to his subject, trademark boom mic in his hand, and just flat-out asking. In recent years his films like Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), and Kurt & Courtney (1998), which attempted to link Courtney Love to Kurt Cobain's death, have garnered a lot of attention and headlines. Last year's Biggie and Tupac, which is being released on DVD April 29th (see below for special release info), may be his most complex and volatile film to date.
Rap superstars and former friends Tupac Shakur and Brooklyn-born Christopher Wallace (AKA Notorious BIG, AKA Biggie) were murdered within six months of each other in 1996 and 1997 in deliberate, high-profile hits, murders that have never officially been solved. Broomfield, however, found the cases to only be the tip of the iceberg of a system run completely amuck. He took his camera deep into Brooklyn, Baltimore and Los Angeles, looking for answers.
His conclusion, that the murders may have been carried out by rogue Los Angeles police officers working for Tupac's record label Death Row Records (more recently renamed Tha Row) and its owner and founder Suge Knight, hints at the sickness Broomfield sees pervading modern law enforcement agencies. "I think [Biggie and Tupac] are regarded as two black gangsta rappers and a lot of people sighed a sigh of relief when they were killed, frankly," Broomfield told Cinema Gotham. "There was no real attempt to uncover what went on, particularly if it was going to be embarrassing to the Los Angeles Police Department or another police department. I mean, a lot of people have said that the last thing the people of Las Vegas [where Tupac was killed] wanted was the show trial of the killing of a black gangsta when they're appealing to family entertainment. I think the same thing happened in Los Angeles which was 'why bother going into rogue police officers and undermining the credibility of the LAPD when you're talking about a black gangster that got killed?'"
Broomfield, who got a good look at Biggie's childhood neighborhood of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn as well as Tupac's Baltimore neighborhood and Suge Knight's Compton home, recognizes that the problems he was investigating are not just the problems of two dead rappers but of a greater sense of urban chaos affecting many of this country's large cities. His film is really about the state of the inner city and its occupants. "Whether you're looking at a community like Clinton Hill, the areas of Baltimore where Tupac grew up, or the areas in Los Angeles like Watts and the other areas of high black concentration they're all the same in that there's always very bad schools [and] lower opportunities for employment, and I think from the outside whether it's Los Angeles or New York those communities are regarded as high risk areas, dangerous to go in. With regards to policing, as long as those problems don't spread to other parts of the city, citizens don't really care. I think it gave the police ridiculous power. There was very little attempt to supervise them properly."
Even though his film runs well under two hours and doesn't get to go into every nook and cranny Broomfield discovered, he still manages to keep these problems in a greater perspective. "Communities like Compton and Clinton Hill changed profoundly in the 80's with the advent of crack cocaine. I think it was very disillusioning to members of the police force to realize that a lot of the crack was basically coming from the war in Nicaragua. That's a very difficult thing for members of the police force to swallow and put their lives on the line. When people see a corrupt government it makes them wonder what the point is of going to the line and really trying to get things done in the way in which they'd been taught. I think other people's values change as well." This includes the "new breed" of cops that Broomfield identifies in the film, less motivated by a sense of duty, community and justice than the desire for gold, cars and women.
Broomfield traces many of the problems faced in the film back decades and can connect the underlying problems to tension between the Black Panther movement and the FBI, the rise of Los Angeles gangs, CIA drug dealing and more. But he couldn't fit all that into his film. "I didn't want to look like a crazed conspiracy theorist which obviously you can do with this story."While Broomfield has an eye on politics and history he can't help but lay much of the blame for the murders at the feet of Suge Knight. In one of the strangest and most tense scenes in recent memory, Broomfield interviews Knight in prison, where he was then serving a nine year term for a parole violation stemming from the night of the Tupac shooting. Broomfield wants the truth but Suge is only interested in reciting his "message to the kids," which is essentially don't get caught because you can't afford the same lawyers that rappers can afford.
Broomfield isn't the only person releasing theories on the murders, however. Right before the film's theatrical release last fall the Los Angeles Times ran two stories on the case by Chuck Phillips, whose main theory was that Biggie hired LA gangsters to kill Tupac. Broomfield, whose own findings essentially place Biggie above reproach, has no patience for Phillips' stories. "I gather that one of the things that is further being investigated is Chuck Phillips' association with Death Row and I think that questions are being raised about his impartiality. I don't know where Chuck Phillips is coming from. I mean if you look at his article, what he did was try and take the heat off Death Row. We talked to the family of Orlando Anderson [the gang member Phillips claims was hired to kill Tupac and who was later killed as well] and they realized Orlando was a kind of patsy. He was a sort of Lee Harvey Oswald character who was not particularly bright [and] who seemed to end up with a new Range Rover which seemed to come out of nowhere which people seem to think came from Death Row. It's all just a bit too convenient, of course. He was dead, Biggie was dead. No one could really prove anything."
Broomfield is skeptical of the effect that stories like Phillips' will have on the case. "In terms of the film, I think [the timing of Phillips' story] was unfortunate but I think one has to look at these things in a longer term. As a documentary filmmaker, what happens happens. You just have to roll with the punches. But I think [Phillips] will have his comeuppance and it will only make the story richer."
Uncovering corruption and injustice is nothing new for Broomfield's work. What may be surprising to viewers of Biggie and Tupac, however, is the presence of Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, and the way that Broomfield almost immediately takes to her. "I adore her. We have a friendship that I think will endure, I hope, for a long time and she's someone I really value and admire. That was one of the real pleasures of making this otherwise rather hard film. She does make an amazing contribution and I think it's because of her as well as just wanting to get to the bottom of it that I'm determined to do whatever I have to do to get information that will change the situation."
Even though rights issues kept Tupac's music out of the film (Biggie's songs appear throughout), Broomfield's perception of the key players was formed by his ears as much by his politically-charged mind. "My son was a great Tupac fan so I had listened to lots of Tupac. I was less aware of Biggie's music [before the film] and I think one of the pleasures of making this film was listening to Biggie's music and getting to know it. I love his humor and his very slick lyrics. In a way he's very neat. He plays around with the form a lot. He almost makes it like a sort of documentary in a way. I think he was very inventive."
In addition to Tupac's music, the DVD version of the film is also missing a scene that depicted a notorious incident at the Source Awards, where Suge Knight kicked off the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. That footage, which appeared in theaters, had to be cut before home release in what sounds like yet another conspiracy. "We had permission to use the footage and then they totally freaked out when the film came out and threatened legal action. I don't think they could have gotten anywhere but so much money was being spent on the release of the DVD that no one thought it was worth the trouble. But again it was people being frightened which was depressing really and annoying."
Still, Broomfield marches on, microphone in hand, putting himself in danger in pursuit of the truth. "There are a lot of people that don't want these questions asked and there are a lot of people who are frightened and who have died. But you can't always be second guessing yourself and looking behind your back. There has to be a feeling that truth will prevail and that if you follow it ultimately good things will come of it. And that's worth it." That's a mantra he hopes future generations can take seriously. When we asked Broomfield if he had his own Suge-style "message to the kids" he simply chuckled and suggested "work hard at school and stick with what you think is real and true."
Nick Broomfield will be appearing at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square at 6:00pm on Tuesday April 29th, to answer questions about the case and his film. This will no doubt be a fascinating opportunity for viewers to get a more in-depth look at the murky world Broomfield depicts.
Broomfield will also be attending the Tribeca Film Festival for the world premiere of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Broomfield and Joan Churchill's follow-up to Broomfield's 1992 film on Aileen Wuornos. Aileen screens Saturday, May 10 at 8:30pm and Sunday, May 11 at 1:00pm, both at the Tribeca UA.
Cinema Gotham DVD reviews
"It's a New World"
Jim Sheridan's In America
Top 10 DVDs of 2003