Dead or alive? Tupac Shakur (courtesy photo)

Tupac Shakur's second coming: to be young, black, gifted, and dead

On Friday, September 13, 1996, Tupac Amaru Shakur, named after an Incan warrior, entered the hip-hop ghetto in heaven.

Seven years after the rap music avatar was slain in a drive-by hit on the Las Vegas strip, Hollywood is finally releasing a film biography that is narrated by the slain hip-hop star - not to soothe its conscience, but to finally acknowledge that Tupac is bigger box office in death than he was in life.

Some stars are embalmed in celluloid before rigor mortis sets in. Why has it taken seven years for Tupac's movie close-up?

The answer is simple. Alive, Shakur was demonized and vilified by both the black and white establishment when he took on the mantle of gangsta thug. To his disciples, however, he was an avenging angel - equal parts Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., giving voice to their dreams and disillusions. His death at an early age forever sealed his place in their pantheon of cultural icons.

Unfortunately, Tupac Resurrection is a pastiche culled from Tupac's interviews, home movies, studio sessions, and recordings. Director Lauren Lazin's mainstream cautionary tale will certainly draw the curious to see what the fuss is about - but little else. However, the charismatic Shakur will also mesmerize those who have never seen him work his magic.

Using a first-person narrative, Tupac bears witness to the strength of his Black Panther mother Afeni, the inspiration for "Dear Mama." However, the male figures in his life - from stepfather Mutulu Shakur to his biological father Billy Garland - are given short shrift. We watch as Tupac's early efforts to organize young blacks into a neo-Panther group take spark and then sputter. It is only when he turns to rap music that he finds his true calling - his destiny.

As an "official" film approved and produced by Mama Shakur, Lazin avoids delving into Tupac's dark side. But in trying to chronicle Tupac's "life" and not his "death," the film's upbeat tone rings false. We never see the real physical violence Tupac imposed on the filmmakers Hughes Brothers or the altercation in the MGM Grand hours before his death, but we do see the Rodney King tape to illustratepolice violence.

The film offers gossipy dish and easy targets instead of insightful substance: Tupac disses his Poetic Justice co-star Janet Jackson for requiring that he take an AIDS test before doing a love scene. He also lashes out at Quincy Jones and other black entertainers. Of course, we never hear their side of the story. We aren't even treated to an entire song, concert performance, or music video - just clips, snips, and snaps. A new cut, "Runnin' (Living to Die)," produced for the film by Eminem, features a Tupac/Notorious B.I.G duet with an Edgar Winter vocal sample. What is most amazing is that Winter's lyric - "Why am I dying to live, if I am living to die" - becomes more memorable than the MCs.

Tupac Resurrection
Dir. Lauren Lazin; feat. Tupac Shakur (R)
Fans want to know why Tupac was killed or even who pulled the trigger. Did fellow rapper Biggie Smalls a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G. (later slain in the trumped-up East Coast-West Coast rappers beef) order the Tupac hit as the Los Angeles Times suggested last year? Another player suspected in Tupac's murder is Death Row mogul Marion Suge Knight (currently in jail on unrelated charges). But since he still controls rights to many Shakur recordings, the film doesn't go there.

Another topic left unexamined is whether Tupac consciously predicted his death through his album lyrics and videos. (Remember the "Paul Is Dead" rumors?) The filmmakers want it both ways: denying that the predictions are true, yet using the cabalistic 7th anniversary to announce his resurrection.

His CD, Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which featured a gruesome black Jesus in the throes of death by crucifixion, was released weeks after his murder under the name of Makaveli (Machiavelli's Prince who faked his death). Tupac died seven days after he was shot on Friday the 13. In his first posthumous video, he appeared to pardon his executioners: "I Ain't Mad at Ya." In another, he muses: "I wonder if there is a Ghetto in Heaven?"

On one popular website, the slain prophet's tattooed body is viewed by fans with the skill of a Los Vegas CSI investigator examining the Shroud of Turin. The emblematic anagram below his belly button THUG LIFE ("The Hate U Give Little Infants Fuck Everybody") becomes a startling revelation.

As a fan leaving the theater remarked, "we might find out who shot Kennedy decades before we find out who smoked Tupac."

By the time of his death, Shakur had already written and directed his own music videos and others (MacMall's "Ghetto Theme"), and had his sights set beyond hip-hop. He had plans to start his own media production company, Euthanasia, and leave Death Row.

"I wrote a script called Live to Tell," he says in a prison interview. "It's based semi on my life and the rest is fiction. But it follows this guy through his whole life. It's a coming-of-age story. But it tells the mother's side of view. It's like a movie to all my albums."

That movie is still waiting to be made. •



A selected list of films and books that give a more complete portrait of the young hip-hop artist Tupac Amaru Shakur

1. Biggie and Tupac. A film noir documentary, a rap detective story. Director Nick Broomfield revisits the Baltimore School of the Arts where Tupac's favorite teacher repeats the advice he gave his former student: "You are more valuable to these people dead than alive, because you will never sell out." Bloomfield also shows us videotape of Tupac imitating Al Pacino in Scarface in class, echoing his "I am crazy, and I don't give a fuck" scene in Juice, his first movie role. DVD/VHS

2. Tupac Vs. This independent feature includes a 45-minute interview with Tupac in the Clinton Prison facility in New York, weeks before Death Row CEO Marion Suge Knight posted a $1.5 million bond for his release. Among his observations: "The Latinos I do come across show me the utmost respect ... I have a hard time believing Brothas can unite - let alone Brothas Latinos - but if it could happen, it would be my dream." DVD/VHS

3. Thug Angel: The Life of an Outlaw. Quincy Jones (who had a hand in its production) tells us his side of the Tupac insult recorded in "Resurrection" - though Jones and Shakur later mended fences. Ironically, Tupac was engaged to Quincy's daughter at the time of his death. This boxed collection is a veritable Tupac 101 college course. It includes a copy of "Holler If You Hear Me: The Search for Tupac Shakur" by Tupac scholar Michael Eric Dyson. The author makes a convincing case for Tupac's ghetto sainthood. Also included is a list of Shakur's reading library of great books; and his final request that Don McLean's song "Vincent" be played at his deathbed. PAPERBACK/CD/DVD/VHS

4. The Rose That Grew From Concrete. Tupac's book of poems with a foreword by Nikki Giovanni. Tupac's poems "Starry Night," and "In the Event of My Demise" show how his rhymes began. He labels the title poem autobiographical.

5. Juice and Poetic Justice. Juice contains that characterization of Bishop that predicted the dark side that Tupac showed to the world toward the end of his life, while in Poetic Justice, a magnificent failure, his portrayal of a sensitive black male shows us the kinder, gentler Tupac. DVD/VHS

6. 2PAC GREATEST HITS. The double-CD gives the best of his early and later work. It should provide a springboard to the more challenging Makaveli and All Eyez on Me.

Gregg Barrios