This mesmerizing documentary about the late rap star Tupac Shakur makes clear what a talented performer and vibrant presence he was, even for audiences who don’t listen to rap music and aren’t quite sure which rap star/convicted felon/murder victim he was.
But it does more than that. It tells a deeply moving story of a gifted, thoughtful, and intelligent young man who has to cope with the challenges of poverty and then has to manage the even more complex challenges of success. And it deals forthrightly with the problems of race and class in America, from racism and police brutality to black on black crime, absent fathers, and the uneasy relationship between showbiz “thug life” and the real thing. At one point, he says, “I really did believe that no black person would ever shoot me.”
The movie was produced by Shakur’s mother and MTV, which provided access to broadcast footage, interviews, and outakes. That allows Shakur, eerily, to tell the story himself, even predicting his own violent death. He warns us that this will be a story of “violence, redemption, and love,” and that proves to be true.
Shakur’s mother was one of the few women leaders of the Black Panthers. She went to prison when she was pregnant with him. He was deeply aware that he served time in prison before he was born. He also respected his mother’s activism but felt that he did not get enough of her attention. “I always felt she cared more about ‘the people’ than her people.” He missed having a strong male role model. “You need a man to teach you to be a man.”
He cared for his community but hated being poor. He briefly dealt drugs, but even the local dealers urged him to follow his dream. He loved performing and was accepted at a school for the arts. By the time he was a teenager, he was working professionally. By the time he was 20, he was a successful recording artist.
He understood the irony when it was only after he became famous that he was picked up by the cops. A citation for jaywalking led to a confrontation that became a beating.
Meanwhile, he is stunned and humbled to find that his visibility has young people looking to him for leadership. He takes it seriously, and gives a lot of thought to what he wants to tell them. He helped develop a code of behavior for “thugs” that covered things like keeping civilians out of the line of fire in gang warfare and taking responsibility for children.
Shakur is clearly and refreshingly as free from any form of prejudice as it is possible to be, at least in his own relationships. His dedication to his friends is genuinely touching. He uses racist and sexist language in the songs he writes, but also writes about respecting women. He has enormous charm but is also a thoughtful young man who wants to understand the world better and wants to make an important contribution. He admits his mistakes freely and he learns from them and moves on. Anyone who watches this movie will feel his loss and want to carry forward his dreams.
Parents should know that this movie includes a great deal of very bad language, including racist terms (with some discussion of when they are and are not racist). Characters use drugs, drink, and smoke, and the ravages of drug addiction are frankly described. Characters engage in violent behavior and sexual abuse, including assault and shooting, and some go to jail. Shakur and other characters are shot and murdered. There are candid discussions of police brutality and racism. All of these issues and the consequences are presented in a realistic way that parents may find more suitable for teenagers than the usual shoot-out and explosion movie.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Shakur changed and grew and what he learned. They should talk about his question, “How can you love like an angel when you are surrounded by devils?” and his statement that “I did not create thug life; I diagnosed it.” Did he also promote it? What did he mean that “a studio is cheaper than a therapist?” They should also look at Shakur’s code of ethics for thugs on this site.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Hurricane and Malcolm X. They will also appreciate another documentary about tragic musical figures, The Filth and the Fury, about the Sex Pistols.