An audience needs to be well informed about the American Rap scene in the 1990s, especially about Tupac Shakur and his meteoric rise to success and his sudden death at age 25. If encountering this story for the first time or with a vague awareness about it, the 140 minute film needs a strong amount of commitment to stay with it.
It is very well made, recreating America from the 1970s to the 1990s, especially in terms of the world of the African-Americans, the immediate aftermath of the political uprisings of the 1960s and outspoken leaders of a more revolutionary vein than Martin Luther King like Malcolm X and the Black Panther movement. The film opens with Tupac’s mother (a strong and nuanced performance from Danai Gurira who has to change dramatically over the quarter century of the film’s action) released from jail, having conducted her own defence, pregnant, giving a defiant speech on the steps of the court.
Tupac is born in 1971, grows up in his early years in New York City, not knowing his birth father but bonding with his stepfather, Shakur, attending meetings, absorbing the revolutionary atmosphere. However, after a smug and brutally racist raid by the FBI, his mother decides that the family should move to Baltimore. His mother is also very strong on education and Tupac is seen as a teenager performing a soliloquy from Hamlet with the prospect of becoming an actor. However, his mother goes on the move again, this time to California. His close friend in Baltimore (and who later challenges his way of life) is Jada Pinkett (who has been married to Will Smith for many years).
Tupac experiences a sudden transition in California from his acting possibilities to music, to Rap music, to creating some stark stories, often stories of African-American experiences, in the drug world, unwanted pregnancies, suicide. (At one stage, Vice President Dan Quayle begins a campaign against the songs and is joined by a group of African-American women who object to the portrait of the black world.)
The rest of the film focuses on Tupac and his music, some MTV clips from the time, performances, with need for close attention by audiences not quite accustomed to Rap lyrics.
Tupac, 20, begins a steep rise to success, performing in some films, arguing with record producers about the value of his bleak lyrics, going on tour, making albums in rapid succession which go to the top of the charts. However, he gets caught up in the glamorous though often sleazy world of women, exploitation, criminals. He forms a bond with Quincey Jones’ daughter. He is frequently arrested – and ultimately goes to prison when he is set up for a rape accusation, not guilty, but sentence because of molestation.
He is harassed without cause by sneeringly violent police (and this is the period of Rodney King).
He does not stay long in prison but is taken up by record producer Suge Knight and becomes friends with performer, Biggie Smalls. This leads to complex negotiations, the founding Death Row Records (with artists like Dr Dre) and great success, his being asked to set up the branch on the East Coast.
Tupac Shakur was shot dead in a drive-by incident in 1996. There have been several other films about Tupac, a documentary by the British Nick Broomfield, Biggie and Tupac, as well as a portrait of Biggie Smalls, Notorious (with the same actor Jamal Woolard in Notorious and here). An afternote indicates that the murder has never been solved.
A comparison might be made with the 2015 Straight Outer Compton, a different take on the development of African-American musicians in the 1990s.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting