The hook driving Lauren Lazin's documentary about rapper Tupac Shakur, murdered in 1996 at age 25, is that it tells his story in his own voice, using material culled from the many TV and radio interviews he gave. Born in New York City and raised in Harlem, Baltimore, and Oakland, Calif., Shakur's childhood was financially impoverished but culturally rich;...read more
The hook driving Lauren Lazin's documentary about rapper Tupac Shakur, murdered in 1996 at age 25, is that it tells his story in his own voice, using material culled from the many TV and radio interviews he gave. Born in New York City and raised in Harlem, Baltimore, and Oakland, Calif., Shakur's childhood was financially impoverished but culturally rich; his education included an interval at the Baltimore School of the Arts. His first performing experience was as a child actor in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. By the time he was in his early 20s, Shakur was a rap superstar whose consistently controversial lyrics dealt with black-on-black racism, institutionalized poverty and ghetto violence. He was arrested repeatedly — Shakur's claims of persecution because of his incendiary pronouncements about police brutality ring true, but don't negate his conviction for sexual assault — and embraced the materialism of hip-hop culture. But his intelligence, political awareness — his mother, Afeni, was a member of the Black Panther Party — and personal charisma offset the "Thug Life" image he cultivated. Unfortunately, Lazin's film gets off to a bad start with a miscalculated opening sequence presented in a way that implies we're listening to Shakur speak about his own murder, an impossibility that undermines the film's documentary credibility. It takes a while to get over the beatific images of clouds accompanied by Shakur's voice saying, "I got shot. I'm surprised but I'm happy" (Shakur was shot multiple times in an apparent robbery attempt two years before his death, and that's the incident to which he's alluding; he was haunted by the presentiment that he would die young and violently) and trust that the film is playing straight, not using recreations or taking poetic license with the facts. The irony is that Shakur's speaking voice is the film's greatest asset: His transformation from eager-to-please teenager to gangsta icon is vividly apparent in the sound bites. Interview by interview, Shakur sheds the polite cadences of his youth and replaces them with a defiantly crude gangsta persona through which his intelligence, education and political consciousness are still apparent. Lazin, an executive producer of MTV's popular series Cribs, favors flashy visuals: photos manipulated to look three-dimensional (a la THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE), words and phrases lifted from Shakur's personal writings floating across the screen and rapid-fire montages. But the most eloquent moments in the film are the most straightforward, like the home-movie interview with the 17-year-old Shakur or the footage from his appearances with the Oakland hip-hop group Digital Underground.
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