It was a fucking lovely day outside today, so I went and got a Tango Ice Blast and went to see Last Man Standing.
What to say man, fuck.
So, last night I rewatched Nick Broomfield’s first documentary on this subject, Biggie and Tupac. I had a vague memory seeing it back in the day, but it was out when there was so much stuff about this being put out, it all kinda merged together. In the trailer for Last Man Standing, Broomfield says that before a lot of stuff folk wouldn’t go on the record about, whereas now with Suge Knight put away for a long time, people were coming forward to talk. I wanted to remind myself about what exactly the gaps had been.
Because 20 years is a long time. Right after it happened, the line was that Bad Boys put out a hit on Tupac and Death Row put out a hit on Biggie. Then it started coming out naw, it was a gang thing, Tupac had beat up some guy from a rival gang, they’d hit Tupac, and then Tupac’s gang took out Biggie in retaliation. Broomfield’s first film came in about here in the timeline of stories, when word started going that the LAPD had been involved in Biggie’s murder. Now, LAPD covering up shit, or deliberately not pursuing shit wasn’t a surprise to anybody. What the Broomfield documentary laid bare was there were LAPD cops on the books at Death Row, being paid as protection (“security”), who dressed in gang colours, who were heavily involved with gang members, and who were there while all the crazy illegal drugged-up shit was going down at Death Row.
Biggie and Tupac is a very different documentary to Last Man Standing. It’s not just made 20 years ago, it’s made by someone with 20 years less experience. I watched Biggie and Tupac and was struck by how naive Broomfield seems. As experienced as he was at doing documentaries even then, he just rocks up at all these places in Compton, asking people what they know with a massive camera on his shoulder. He seems completely unaware of what it means to bring a white face and camera into Compton and start asking about gang affiliation and links to organised criminal activity.
I find his language kinda ill-considered too. Like, he talks about Snoop Dogg being terrified of Suge Knight getting out of jail, on that occasion for parole violation. It’s like, you can’t talk about Snoop Dogg being terrified, quaking in his boots at Suge’s shadow, are you crazy? That is the least diplomatic thing you could fucking say in what was, at that time, still an ongoing gang war.
Also, a lot of people he interviews speak differently to him than they do when speaking to each other, or recalling a conversation. A lot of that code-switching, which kinda showed to me they weren’t really comfortable with him. Your interviewees should be telling, not translating.
Also, he didn’t seem to have any backing from anyone in Tupac’s side of things, no support from the family. He kinda painted Afeni Shakur as a deadbeat mum, who ditched Pac to do drugs his whole childhood, but showed up to cosy up with Suge when Tupac’s royalties were up for grabs after his death. I think everyone would agree, that’s not a fair and accurate portrayal of Afeni.
It’s always really suspect when something doesn’t have the family’s backing. But Violetta, Biggie’s mum really took to Broomfield and felt she got a lot out of the movie. Broomfield put her in touch with Russell Poole, the whistleblower who uncovered the links between LAPD officers and Death Row, and they shared information and support. As a result of some of the things uncovered in the documentary, Violetta sued the LAPD.
So why go back 20 years later and make the film again?
Well, for one, because no one has been arrested or charged in the murders of Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls. In Tupac’s case the killer confessed, and boasted about that shit all over the neighbourhood. He could have been picked up any time, but he was killed in the subsequent waves of gang violence 18 months later. In Biggie’s case, you had enough evidence that Russell Poole wanted to proceed with charging officers David Mack and Rafael Perez, among others, and was shut down by the chief of police. It’s not like these cases are a whodunnit. There are extremely viable suspects. And you’d think with two of the biggest celebrities at the time being murdered on the street in public in the centre of the city, you would *think* that would warrant pull-out-all-the-stops, no-stone-left-unturned investigation.
It’s weird now, to communicate to someone who wasn’t even born at the time, to this generation, like how big of a thing this was. Tupac got killed on the Las Vegas Boulevard, right on the fucking strip! The night of a Mike Tyson fight. You could not have more eyes on you. I dunno what the equivalent today would be, but in terms of fame and money, imagine Beyonce getting shot in Times Square on New Years’ Eve. For nobody to be caught for that kinda crime, you have to be determined not to catch someone.
Anyway, Last Man Standing. I wondered if it would simply be retreading old ground, basically the same documentary as Biggie and Tupac with some of the holes plugged. But it’s not. It’s its own seperate thing. Biggie and Tupac is very much the story about Biggie and Tupac, their rags to riches story, their talent and their friendship, destroyed by needless violence. Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac is about Suge Knight. It’s his story.
Because in Biggie and Tupac, all roads led back to Suge Knight, violence surrounded him like it was circling a drain, yet he remains illusive throughout the film. He does one interview, it is the film’s last scene, and he refuses to comment on the murders, but makes a not-so-veiled threat against Snoop Dogg and labels him a snitch.
In Last Man Standing, we begin with Suge Knight. Who he is and what he did are the central questions of the movie. As Biggie and Tupac ends on Suge Knight making death threats, and Broomfield wondering if Snoop is going to be next in what was, at that time, a seemingly never-ending list of rappers losing their lives to this cycle of violence, you are left with the distinct impression that Suge Knight is a dangerous man, that if he gets his way, the killing won’t end. As Last Man Standing starts, we begin with the scene of Suge Knight’s most recent murder, the killing of Terry Carter. It seems the ominous assessment held true to its grim promise.
The film traces Suge Knight from his fairly comfortable upbringing, his good home life, and his promising scholarship to college, and his career in college football, and briefly at a professional level. His origins are about the furthest you can get from where he ends up. He was never involved with the Bloods, although he knew people in the gang, even a couple of friends. He wasn’t involved in any street violence.
After his football career doesn’t take off, he uses his heavy set frame as a bodyguard, and manages to work for celebrities like Bobby Brown. He makes connections and sees a good business opportunity, becoming a black-owned label putting out the work of black artists at what was the birth of the rap genre.
And if it had stopped there, Suge Knight would be a millionaire, Tupac and Biggie would be old and be living off their investments like Jay-Z, and an untold number of ordinary kids on the street would still be kicking about the neighbourhood.
The gangsta image that sold so well, went from something that was projected to something that he wanted to live. You know how they say don’t get high on your own supply? Suge Knight sold an image, and he began to buy into the shit he sold.
Some of the shit they detail as going down in Death Row Records is insane. If it was happening in a corrugated tin and concrete shack in the back of a vacant lot, it would still have been a crazy place for all this shit to go down. The fact it’s a working business office, a place where people were trying to record tracks and put an album together, during daylight working hours. In-fucking-sane. To intimidate folk, Suge Knight used to keep a opaque tank full of black piranhas in his office, like a fucking bond villain. They talk about having bitch fights, like dog fights but with women. Have two women beat the shit out each other for the crew’s entertainment. There’s orgies right there on the red carpet, over the Death Row logo.
And he just sucks everyone else into his own vortex of madness, and power, and belief he was untouchable. When he signs Tupac, he draws Tupac from his goal to make socially conscious music influenced by his mother’s Black Panther activism, to this Thug LifeTM money machine, convincing him that only he had his back. The drugs, the paranoia, and the whole too-muchness kinda destroys Tupac, drawing him into increasingly self-destructive behaviour, especially lashing out at Biggie, an old friend who he feels betrayed and abandoned by, due in large part to Suge’s manipulations.
Last Man Standing holds Suge Knight morally responsible for the death of Tupac. You can’t invite your mate out to play on the motorway, then hold yourself blameless when he ends up dead. The shit that gets Tupac killed, is Suge Knight’s shit. It’s his poison that he stirred.
As far as Biggie is concerned, it’s not even that far removed. It’s as simple as Suge pays David Mack and David Mack shot Biggie. End of. If you can’t draw a line between that few dots…
When Biggie and Tupac ended, you felt that the story was unfinished, that the killing might continue. Suge Knight is now serving a 28 year sentence. He’s 56. He won’t be eligible for parole until his 70s, and he’s not gonna make it to his 70s because he’s had blood clots and all other sorts of shit. It’s over. He had to kill one more person, but yeah, he’s finally been stopped.
Last Man Standing is the story of how one egomaniac caused so much violence, loss and misery. And all the people caught in the crossfire.