Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel (2002)

“This ain’t no democracy.”

The documentary Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel takes a deconstructionist approach to analyzing the Rap superstar. Was Tupac a thug whose life ended in an uncanny replication of his lyrics, or was Tupac Shakur, a revolutionary with anarchistic beliefs? With these two diametrically opposed images, the filmmaker deconstructs Tupac’s life while exploring both possibilities. As a result, this thought-provoking documentary offers a great deal of insight into a life that so often hit the front page.

Tupac, named after a Bolivian revolutionary, was born into a troubled family–his mother was a Black Panther, and other relatives served jail time. One relative even received political asylum from Cuba. By the time Tupac was a teenager, he was no stranger to poverty, and frequent moves across country finally left him living in Marin County. The film includes an interview with a 17-year old Tupac, and it’s clear from the statements he makes that he’s intelligent, idealistic, respectful towards women and very socially conscious. It is difficult to align these early statements of Tupac with some of the film’s later interviews. Within a few years, now famous, Tupac’s world view is much harder. There’s one scene of him toting a weapon in a shooting range, and one senses he is preparing for the big showdown he is sure is in his future. It is at this point that Tupac makes several dramatic statements: “The police ain’t nothing but a gang. The National Guard ain’t nothing but a gang. The army ain’t nothing but a gang.” But it’s also quite clear from the documentary’s investigation of Tupac’s past why he felt this way. Tupac noted that even Dan Quayle took the time at the Republican Convention to lob a verbal attack against the rapper, and as his acquaintances realised, Tupac interpreted this attention to be devastatingly significant.

The documentary includes many interviews with those who knew Tupac best–relatives, former manager Leila Steinberg, Quincy Jones, and fellow rappers. The film touches on Tupac’s Death Row Records contract, and the feud with Biggie. He is described by those who loved him as “the hardest working man in hip hop.” Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel is a fascinating account of the rapper’s brief and brilliant life, and as an attempt to unravel the mystery of Tupac’s two sides, I think the film succeeds quite well. The DVD also contains a booklet that highlights key points in Tupac’s personal life and his career.

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