Human beings are complex- some of us more than others. And when society expends great efforts to oversimplify people, the more forceful the pushback from those who resist the restrictions being imposed upon them. This, in my view, explains the enduring popularity of Tupac Shakur who died more than 20 years ago but whose biopic is hitting movie theaters nationwide this Friday. Assessing the manufactured cultural phenomenon that Tupac was has challenges. But I hope that everybody who weighs in on the impact of this figure gives him credit for at least that much. This guy forcefully defied conventions in his art even while appearing to embrace and wallow in them- mainly because he wanted to be the author of his own identity. I’ll give him that much because I fully endorse that position. Beyond that, the picture gets complicated.
I dug some of Tupac’s music but I was never a fan for reasons I’ll break down below. But despite my lack of enchantment with him as an artist and a cultural icon, I was not happy to see that the early reviews of the film chronicling his life have been so underwhelming. I think dude deserved better than a glorified after-school special or a straight to dvd effort as reports indicate. As a general rule, I always want movies with black central characters to do well because there still are not enough of them hitting mainstream distribution channels despite years of hard work by great artists and filmmakers to secure broader opportunities. So I really hope that All Eyes On Me does not bomb despite some indications that it might. Critics are frequently wrong and let’s hope this is such an occasion.
But this piece is about the man himself and not the movie about the man. And for better or worse, Tupac was a lightening rod for controversy and dissension. I always found it hard to stomach artists who give every indication that they were willing to sell their very soul for fame, but then bitch and resist the inseparable concomitants of the enterprise. If you want to sell millions of records by hitting every raw and exposed nerve that our society has as hard as you can as often as you can that is certainly your right. But accept the costs and consequences of doing so just as readily as you accept the money and panties that rain down on you if your ship happens to come in one day. His ship came in and he promptly steered it into an iceberg.
But stars crying about the burden of being stars was certainly not unique to Tupac. Whining about the strictures of fame was going on long before him and has continuted on long after him. The problem with Tupac was that he stumbled his way into a position of social relevance well beyond making music or movies and the fact that he was far out of his depth was manifestly self-evident. I say he stumbled into the role because anyone who looked at this guy as any kind of a civic leader was reflecting their own hysterical desperation to find one anywhere they could and projecting their fantasies onto him. This is a clear case of looking for love in all the wrong places.
Despite the fact that some people have decided to worship Tupac and treat him as a martyred freedom fighter, he was just an entertainer. Nothing more. He was a vastly overrated MC and a vastly underrated actor. In fact, as good as he was in movies, the greatest acting job Tupac ever did was playing the role of a top notch MC- a thug with a tender heart and sensitive artistic spirit. Just the right combination to make obsequious men want to be you and a marketable cross-section of women want to wrap their legs around you. And my view is that he knew it and was deeply insecure about it- which explains his unforgivable violation of man-law and bro-code against The Notorious B.I.G. who was just a lot nicer on the mic than Tupac was and could prove it in freestyle at any given moment. Guys that grew up on hip-hop music know this as fact. Tupac was a movie-star and Biggie was a real MC- and that bred resentment.
The second Tupac hurled out the phrase “That’s why I fucked yo bitch you fat motherfucker” I was done with him. Men that are serious about their code know that is as bad as it gets because regardless of whether it was true, he crossed more lines than a game of tic-tac-toe. And once bread is toast, it can’t ever be bread again. If Faith Evans did go to bed with him, his decision to disgrace her publicly just to take a shot at his former friend was way beyond the pale. And if Faith did not go to bed with him, then he was lying on his dick and lying on a woman he was supposed to be cool with which is another man-law violation of the highest order. Anyway you slice it, Tupac shit on himself in this episode and it still stinks two decades later. The fact that he largely got a pass on this bullshit reflects just how worthless a ghetto pass is. What Kobe did to Shaq was ill, but nowhere close to as ill as this and Kobe NEVER got his pass back.
Everybody makes mistakes, but this dude reveled in it in a way that forced anybody who even heard of the situation to choose a side on a very hot button issue on an intensely personal matter. If a guy does mess up and find himself in a sexual situation with a woman that is romantically involved with a friend of his, there are several ways to handle it but the way Tupac did it is not one of them.
The bottom line is he was jealous of Biggie’s status as an MC and he handled it incredibly poorly. Women make mistakes all the time but men who exploit those mistakes for nefarious benefits are far worse off than she is. And if her only mistake was considering Tupac her friend and allowing herself to be photographed with him then he was even more hostile and hateful towards women than anybody else no matter how many sonnets or love poems he wrote. Actions tell the story in a way that words never can. Yet women remained steadfastly in his corner til the very end.
And of course, there was the whole rape conviction episode that somehow never made it into the mathematical equation of Tupac’s cultural valuation. We will see if any of the women who took such a strong and principled stand against Nate Parker’s movie for just being tried and ACQUITTED for an alleged rape will take the same protest stand against Tupac’s biopic since he was tried and CONVICTED of an actual rape. I wonder if Gabrielle Union will post another op-ed in the LA Times discouraging women from supporting the project. My suspicion is that she’ll sit out this protest along with the other women because after all I understand that Tupac was a very sexy guy so what’s a little rape conviction got to do with it? We’ll see if fandom is a greater value than victim’s rights for them.
But that is what Tupac really represents- an intersection of conflicting feelings and competing interests with people oftentimes at war with themselves about their own views and perspectives. Because of his ability to draw attention and willingness to speak freely, he forced you to choose a side over him. If I can’t give him that much then that would reflect something amiss in my character rather than his.