I originally planned to do a real-time review of Tupac: Resurrection, believing that it would 1) provoke a little discussion about the merits or demerits of gangsta rap, 2) introduce a little color to this pasty-white boy review site (now featuring a girl!), and 3) offer a multitude of opportunities to drop some of the snarky rapper humor that kids these days are so fond of. Besides, I reckoned that after The Passion of the Christ, I’d focus my real-time reviews on films featuring resurrections in contexts bound to display my utter ignorance of a wide range of subjects. After all, the closest my musical tastes get to gangsta rap is a heavy dose of Rage Against the Machine, with the occasional Kanye or Eminem, and even my ignorant ass recognizes that they hardly count. So, in a way, I thought this review would provide me with a valuable, if humbling, educational experience.
But an odd thing happened while taking my notes: By the half-hour mark, it became apparent that 1) there was little about Tupac’s life that might inspire lame quips, and 2) real-time reviewing this Oscar-nominated documentary was disrespectful not only of its subject but also of the film itself, which — as it turns out — is powerful and eye-opening, particularly for those of us whose knowledge of Tupac Shakur doesn’t extend beyond a general familiarity with his rap sheet, the infectious “California Love,” and a sketchy memory of his premature demise.
Tupac: Resurrection plays out like the best episode of “Behind the Music” that you’ve ever seen, in large part because it uses interview footage from his life, and much of the narration — delivered by Tupac himself — sounds as though it was recorded posthumously. Take, for instance, the ominous opening:
I got shot. I always felt like I’d be shot. Somebody tried to do me harm. Because a lot of people don’t like me. But, I didn’t think it was going to happen at that particular moment. I’m surprised, but I’m happy. I believed that my soul is in God’s hands, and I’m very appreciative to God for everything I’ve gotten to do. … This is my story. A story about ambition, violence, redemption, and love.
The quote is an eerie prelude to the rest of the documentary, which proceeds chronologically, beginning with Tupac’s childhood — his mother was in the upper echelons of the Black Panther movement, and spent most of her pregnancy in prison defending charges that would’ve put her in prison for over 300 years (she argued her case pro se and was acquitted). As a kid, Tupac was an endearing mama’s boy who emulated Arnold from “Diff’rent Strokes,” and started his acting career at the Apollo, in an appearance made in support of Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy.
He moved to Baltimore during his teenage years, where he attended a School for the Arts, a predominantly white school with some affluent minorities, like Jada Pinkett, whom he befriended. The school offered him a unique perspective on race; “the same black-crime element that white people were scared of, the black people were scared of,” he offered. “While they were waiting for legislation to pass and everything, we were next door to the killer … and just because we’re black doesn’t mean we get along with the killers.”
Tupac’s reflections on his upbringing present him as an unusually gifted teenager, with a keen understanding of class, the political realities of urban life, and the unique perspective of an impoverished kid who spent his days with wealthy students. It was this perspective, in fact, that informed his first couple of albums, in which he presented the atrocities that plagued the black community — the gangs, the crime, the death, and the drugs — in an effort to draw attention to those problems and not, necessarily, to celebrate them. (Also among the many things I did not know about Tupac Shakur: He started out in the Digital Underground, which you may remember as the rap group responsible for fucking up your prom with “The Humpty Dance.”) Indeed, in the beginning, Tupac sought to do for rap what television cameras did for Vietnam: Present a painful reality in all its graphic detail, in the hopes that it would force people to respond.
But shit turned around real quick when Tupac was 20. He was arrested and severely beaten for jaywalking, which not only warranted a $42,000 settlement against the police (he sued for $10 million) but also initiated Tupac into the criminal life, perhaps proving to him that no matter what he achieved, he was still vulnerable to the fundamental injustices of a racist system. Thereafter, Tupac’s life and music took a sharp turn toward the dark and arguably self-indulgent — his music stopped really being a reflection on the mayhem of urban life and started being more about his own troubles with the law as his rap sheet quickly grew. The film subtly suggests that, in a way, the violence about which Tupac initially tried to raise awareness slowly began to swallow him: He was arrested for shooting two off-duty police officers (the indictment was later tossed); started bad-mouthing his co-workers in the film industry; was jailed for assault; was imprisoned for rape; was shot five times and lived; and, eventually, he was gunned down after a Mike Tyson fight.
The film, which was executive produced by his mother, soft-pedals his increasing paranoia, as well as his troubles with the law — the footage paints him as a victim of circumstances, though it’s easy to read between the lines and understand that to a degree, he facilitated the very circumstances that led to his undoing. He was a fatality of the East Coast/West Coast feud he helped to start, pitting himself and Death Row records against Puff Daddy and Biggie and then seemingly fanning the flames that led to his death.
But the most intriguing aspect of Tupac: Resurrection is the way it presents his many contradictions: A man who celebrated strong women, but wrote overtly misogynistic lyrics; a guy who rapped against gang violence, but participated in it; a person who expressed regret for his past errors of judgment, but went ahead and repeated them; and an artist who tried to rewrite the meaning of “thug,” but — in many ways — lived by, and even further popularized, the old definition. Even more challenging is the way he so honestly critiqued Hollywood, the music industry, and the all the attendant hype, yet ultimately, gave into it himself - hell, he embodied that hype.
This movie demonstrates that Tupac Shakur is a far more compelling figure than I’d anticipated, and his life was as fascinating as anything Shakespeare, one of his biggest influences, could’ve thought up. After spending two hours watching Resurrection, it’s easy to understand why he’s the best selling hip-hop artist of all time. He’s unbelievably charismatic, thoughtful, and remarkably candid about himself. And it’s really strange — and feels almost dishonest given my lack of prior interest or awareness — but this movie left me with a real feeling of loss at the death of Tupac Shakur. As Resurrection suggests, he possessed a beguiling vulnerability that stood in stark contrast to the bluster and bravado of many other guys (Puff Daddy, Snoop Dogg, Dre), and his contradictions made Tupac a more identifiable, honest personality. But, those qualities were also what made him such a quixotic dick: His vulnerability was misleading, because he still went out and spit in reporters’ faces, he still beat the shit out people, shot cops, called women bitches, and participated in a feud with Biggie Smalls that, presumably, killed them both. Yet the struggle with his own identity notwithstanding, Tupac remains a figure who did as much as anyone to bear witness to the problems of urban life. As Resurrection suggests, his tumultuous life and death may provide the most powerful evidence of all.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Tupac: Resurrection / Dustin Rowles
Film | March 27, 2007 | Comments ()