When the results of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips’s investigation into the ties between the Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace murders were published in the Los Angeles Times on September 6, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield couldn’t have asked for better publicity. As a piece of investigative reporting, Biggie & Tupac is more earnest than Broomfield’s spiteful yet equally provocative Kurt & Courtney. Endlessly fascinated with the more devastating aspects of American pop celebrity, Broomfield has a way of using his deceptively sheepish British persona to wring answers from his scared subjects. No matter how weighty the subject matter, his projects feel less like documentaries than they do comedies. If Philips’s investigation pinpointed both the actual trigger man in the Tupac murder and Wallace’s possible involvement, Broomfield’s focus is much wider. More than tracing the roots of the East Coast/West Coast flame wars back to the ghettos of Los Angeles, Broomfield discovers and celebrates the subversive link between Hip-Hop music and the Black Panther movement. Slowly but surely, Broomfield pulls out his trump card: the possibility that members of the LAPD were involved in the Tupac and Wallace murders. Back in 1992, Dan Quayle’s racist crusade for “family values” accused Time Warner and Ice T’s “Cop Killer” of celebrating the death of police officers. Quayle’s inability to see the link between Ice T’s song and the legacy of slavery and white aggression in America was his white man’s burden. Curiously and ironically, Quayle launched his fight some three months after the Los Angeles riots and while Broomfield doesn’t address the three-day revolt in South Central he does expose an incestuous connection between Los Angeles gangs and police officers and, more importantly, the LAPD and members of Death Row records. After countless cable specials on the subject, Biggie & Tupac’s greatest achievement may be that it tells us something that most of us didn’t already know. Chuck Philips may have found Tupac’s killer but Broomfield may have found Wallace’s. More importantly, though, he reveals an ironic manifestation of institutionalized slavery that ties a black-owned record label with a white-empowered police force.
Nick Broomfield’s films seem to fall somewhere in between the calculated extremities of Errol Morris and the polite humanitarianism of Frederic Wiseman. Because Biggie and Tupac are both gone and because Broomfield has no apparent vested interest in either rapper, his latest documentary makes for a surprisingly even-handed experience (yes, Broomfield could teach Michael Moore a thing-or-20). Biggie & Tupac looks and sounds incredibly clean for something so obviously shot on the fly. The image is incredibly film-like and the audio is perfectly audible-certainly a surprise when you consider just how scared shitless the director, cameraman and sound person were throughout filming.
Nick Broomfield provides one of the more memorable audio commentaries in recent memory on this DVD edition of Biggie & Tupac. Though he does enough talking through the film itself, the commentary allows Broomfield the opportunity to fill in certain gaps: he explains how certain crucial information could not be included because of legal reasons and just how difficult it was to get his hands on certain archival material. In the end, the commentary takes on a life of its own as a fabulous work of investigative journalism. Broomfield proves equally eloquent on a follow-up interview included on the disc that runs for almost 30 minutes. Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur discographies and a trailer reel are also made available. Surprisingly, the most disappointing feature is the unseen footage, which is little more than unused segments from existing material that made the cut and two "failed" interviews (essentially, Broomfield being turned away by a security guard in one location and a bar owner at another).
Nick Broomfield doesn’t bring us any closer to solving the murders of Biggie and Tupac but he does lend frightening credence to the possibility of a conspiracy of epic proportions.