A life of conflict, as told by Tupac

Times Staff Writer

From Nathan Hale to Che Guevara, every revolution has needed a symbol who died young, but few have died as young -- or as talented -- as Tupac Shakur, gunned down on a Las Vegas street seven years ago at age 25.

The most iconic figure the hip-hop music and cultural revolution has yet to produce, the exceptionally charismatic Tupac had a story that was almost Shakespearean in its intensity of feeling, complexity of motive and tragic end. The fact that "Tupac: Resurrection," an absorbing and comprehensive new film, is opening in some 800 theaters nationwide, an especially wide opening for a documentary, proves that this is no ordinary life being chronicled.

Neither is the aptly named film, directed by Lauren Lazin, very much like a standard documentary. Because its articulate subject was always more than responsive to interview questions, there is enough of his voice on either audiotape or videotape to allow Tupac to narrate the entire two-hours-plus, making this more of a film autobiography than a traditional doc.

Though we do feel the need of other voices to provide perspective, "Tupac: Resurrection" is even-handed for a single-point-of-view film, especially one executive-produced by the subject's mother, Afeni Shakur. Whatever difficulties Tupac got into in his life -- and it sometimes seems he did nothing but get into difficulties -- they are dealt with unblinkingly here.

"Tupac: Resurrection" opens with beautiful footage of Las Vegas (Jon Else is the film's cinematographer) and the surprise of Tupac's voice saying, "I got shot." He's talking, we eventually realize, about an earlier shooting incident in New York rather than his murder, but given what transpired, Tupac's thoughts on death and the hereafter are especially arresting.

The other surprise, especially to those who think of Tupac only in connection with the controversies over his rap lyrics and the violence he was associated with, is the soft quality of his voice and the suppleness of his thoughts. Smart and insightful, especially about himself, reflective and invariably candid, Tupac comes off as a person who did everything from the heart, even if his heart drove him to wildly conflicting actions.

"Tupac: Resurrection" is especially good at showing how unnervingly, even heartbreakingly contradictory this man could be. Here was someone who admired strong women while using derogatory lyrics in his songs. Someone who decried violence in the black community while participating in it himself.

Most tellingly, the film has Tupac regretting certain of his past actions ("My ego was out of control, I had to get humble again") minutes before doing the same type of stuff all over again. One second he's as well-mannered as Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" as he talks to MTV's Tabitha Soren, the next he is angrily spitting at everyone in sight. Yet everything he says and does feels sincere, so much so that one of "Tupac: Resurrection's" sadnesses is its understanding of the ways fame can make you crazy, of how easy it is for someone so young and so celebrated to become, in a sense, trapped by his own life.

The film also demonstrates that Tupac came by his contradictions honestly. What makes him such a compelling figure is the way his personality was formed by the confluence of several powerful trends -- political, cultural and artistic -- that combined in him as in no one else.

The revolutionary political seed was planted by his mother, a committed member of the Black Panther party in the 1960s. When Tupac says, "My roots to the struggle are real deep," he is not being hyperbolic: He's named after an Inca who led a rebellion against the Spanish and his mother was pregnant with him while she was in prison on Panther-related charges. Wanting to be of some help, wanting to improve the life of the black community, was always a priority for him, and it is chilling in our current context to hear him say, "What makes my freedom less important than the Bosnians or whoever they want to fight for this year?"

But because he grew up poor without having a father around, Tupac was also attracted to the violently macho pimp and gangster culture of the streets, to the societal underdogs he attempted to defend through his support of what he called "thug life."

Yet Tupac was also deeply immersed in more traditional culture. As a youngster he wrote poetry in his diary, became a lifelong friend of Baltimore School for the Arts classmate Jada Pinkett Smith, and read enough of Elizabethan drama to excitedly proclaim that "Shakespeare is dope." And, after an appearance at a Jesse Jackson fund-raiser, he fell in love with performing. "This is better than money, better than sex," he remembers thinking. "I want this."

"Tupac: Resurrection" shows all these influences and more fighting one another for control of the rapper's life as his career took off and controversy and violence swirled around him. Tupac was beaten by the Oakland police ("I didn't have a record until I made a record") for allegedly resisting arrest on a jaywalking charge. He got involved in a tangled sexual abuse case for which he went to prison. And he was shot and nearly killed in a New York incident that may or may not have been a simple robbery, an event that led to the angry rivalry between New York and L.A. rappers, which the film's footage makes clear was frighteningly real.

Director Lazin, who works frequently for MTV, makes good use of the hundreds of hours of Tupac footage to which she had access and uses all kinds of visuals, from displayed text to artwork and greeting cards. She shows someone who was only telling the truth when he said, "I was different things to different people." Just as accurate is his description of his own life as "a story about ambition, violence, redemption and love." What is inescapably tragic, given how much we can see him evolving even in his brief lifetime, is the way that story ended.

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'Tupac: Resurrection'

MPAA rating: R, for strong language and images of drugs, violence and sex

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

An MTV Films/Amaru Entertainment Inc. production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Lauren Lazin. Producers Preston Holmes, Karolyn Ali, Lauren Lazin. Executive producers Afeni Shakur, Van Toffler, David Gale. Cinematographer Jon Else. Editor Richard Calderon. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

In general release

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