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“This is Dangerous, Murky Water”: Nick Broomfield on Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie & Tupac

Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie & Tupac

in Filmmaking
on Nov 9, 2021

Nearly two decades on from the release of his controversial 2002 opus Biggie & Tupac, British filmmaker Nick Broomfield is revisiting the story of the iconic, titular American rappers. In the BBC- and Abacus Media Rights-backed Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie & Tupac, currently available through Gravitas Ventures on digital platforms, Broomfield delves into fresh testimony about the potential involvement of the LAPD and Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight in the murders of Smalls and Shakur. Rather than relying on a single smoking gun to propel the story forward, the documentary instead offers a panoramic view of the factors and the environment that led to the mid-90s Californian tragedy. 

Reuniting with Compton-based, African American producer Pam Brooks, with whom he worked on his truly remarkable 2014 film Tales of the Grim Sleeper, the now septuagenarian Broomfield spends less time on screen in Last Man Standing than he did in Biggie & Tupac, ceding his trademark boom mic to a cast of peripheral players now hardened and wizened by the passing of time. There is still plenty of speculation to go around, but we see a weariness exhibited by the talking heads interviewed on camera. (Perhaps because, some 20 years on, so little has changed for African American men on the streets of America.) 

The doc marks the third time Broomfield has revisited an earlier film, following 1990’s police force examination Juvenile Liaison 2; and 2003’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which revisited the late Aileen Wuornos prior to her execution.

Last Man Standing also arrives at a tumultuous time for the documentary industry, which is undergoing a dramatic shake-up. Having been the preserve of mostly white, mostly male filmmakers from the 1960s onwards, gatekeepers at all levels are now being forced to engage in difficult discussions around access, inclusion, representation and opportunity, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The key question is: who has the right to tell certain stories? Such conversations reverberate as we see Broomfield parachuting into Compton to once again examine the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur.

Filmmaker: It’s quite a trip, diving back into the Tupac-Biggie story after quite so much time. The footage feels very different compared with watching it in 2002…

Nick Broomfield: The world has certainly changed enormously in that time, although maybe the principal elements haven’t changed very much. Some things have changed, but an awful lot really is exactly the same as it was. Compton is exactly the same as it was. The police… I don’t think their way of doing business has changed very much.

Filmmaker: What prompted you to revisit this story, nearly two decades on? 

Nick Broomfield: It was a combination of factors. I was upset by the demise of [LAPD Detective] Russell Poole. He was, I thought, one of the few people who wasn’t into it at all to make money. He was really into it for belief and honor. He was a very straight shooter. And then, actually, when I was doing Tales of the Grim Sleeper, one of the police officers who was in charge of that case, a guy called Daryn Dupree, contacted me and said, ‘My dear friend Greg Kading has done a book on the Tupac killing and he’s come up with a new theory. And basically, Russell Poole does know what he’s talking about.’ 

I looked at Greg Kading’s book and, whereas I felt his theories about the Tupac killing were very plausible, and he had done some good police work with [Crips gang member] Keefe D, I felt the things he had come up with for the Biggie killing and [Bloods gang member] Wardell ‘Poochie’ Fouse, were really paper thin. There was absolutely nothing to support it. 

Filmmaker: With this sequel, you really take quite a long time – a good hour or so at the start of the movie – setting up and recapping the story for those unfamiliar with it. 

Nick Broomfield: I didn’t want to make a film that would be just a sort of whodunit. I wanted to understand how it was possible that this all happened. How is it possible that Tupac ended up where he ended up? How is it possible that a record company could really be run by a bunch of street gangsters? How is it possible that Interscope was just down the corridor and pretended they didn’t know anything was happening? And the whole crazy situation of LAPD police officers moonlighting for a gangster organization as bodyguards…

Filmmaker: One of the key differences between the two films is that this one significantly focuses on the role of Suge Knight, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2018 and sentenced to 28 years in prison. How did the fact that he’s now incarcerated play into the story? 

Nick Broomfield: Well, he had also alienated most of the gang members, too. He had lost a lot of credibility, and people who absolutely weren’t prepared to talk in any way in the previous film were now quite open to it. And, as an Englishman, I’d always wondered how it was possible for any of this really to come about. 

It seems like such a far-fetched story and so incredible that it could have happened. And the way you understand it, I think, is by understanding this almost secret society of Death Row and how it operated; what its values were and the people who ran it. Suge’s love, really, for that world – his is the kind of apocryphal story of somebody who had it all.

Filmmaker: What do you think it is about Biggie and Tupac that has made them such cultural icons?

Nick Broomfield: They were both amazing wordsmiths and poets. Tupac definitely had a unique political upbringing. Yaasmyn Fula, who I was privileged to interview on this film, and a number of the other Panthers that he grew up with, were far-seeing people with an enormous political influence on him, which made his demise even more upsetting and devastating. 

Biggie too, was a scholarship student in a private school and he could have done whatever he wanted to. I think they were really, exceptionally talented. They also fulfilled, I guess, the appetites of a very large white, middle class audience who wanted to get into the fantasy of gangster-rap and the world that they were portraying in their songs. 

Filmmaker: What really struck me, watching the film after all this time, was just what a sad story it is. These beautiful, talented young men, gunned down in their prime over what Knight associate Mob James describes towards the end of the film as being “some of the pettiest shit on the planet.”

Nick Broomfield: Yeah, much ado about nothing. 

Filmmaker: Much ado about nothing. Given that, did you feel any anxiety about making a film about Knight, knowing that that world can be petty and vindictive?

Nick Broomfield: I did have concerns. But as a journalist, once you really get into a story, you become more concerned with the story than probably thinking about your own safety. It’s something you think about at the beginning of the story. But once you’ve entered into it, and you’re dealing with the machinations of a story and the way in which it works, and trying to get access to people, you quickly forget about safety, I think. I was concerned about people who were helping me, within the community. I felt they were more likely targets than myself. 

Filmmaker: At one point in the film you say that, without your producer Pam Brooks, ‘we could never have made this film.’ You also mention that she showed you ‘some good tips’ that you didn’t learn in film school. Tell me about her role and how she helped facilitate the making of the film… 

Nick Broomfield: I worked with Pam on [2014’s] Tales of the Grim Sleeper and we had maintained a friendship over those years. She lives in Compton and it’s a small place, Compton. And sure enough, she knew ‘Joe Cool’ [Darryl Daniel], who was Snoop’s cousin. Pam also knew a number of the women who had dated Suge from school and were connected to him one way or another. It’s like a village, really. 

Filmmaker: This next question covers a complex topic. Over the past seven years, you’ve made three African American-centric stories: Tales of the Grim Sleeper, about serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr.; Whitney: Can I Be Me, about Whitney Houston; and now Last Man Standing. And part of your appeal, part of your style, I would say, has always been going in as an outsider and adopting this sort of naïve Englishman, fish-out-of-water, ‘What’s going on here?’ approach, which often produces remarkable results. 

However, there has been a tremendous amount of conversation in the documentary industry, especially over the past year, about who gets to tell what stories; whether insiders should get to tell stories, whether outsiders get to tell stories… and there has definitely been pushback against the idea of white male directors telling stories about communities that aren’t their own. 

Has that made you rethink your filmmaking approach?

Nick Broomfield: No, not at all. I think it’s all to do with storytelling. It’s all to do with how you tell a story and the kind of relationships you have with people. This industry is a mercurial industry and people do whatever they think is necessary to survive in it. I don’t know how deep belief and commitment goes.  I think also, like, most of my friends in L.A. wouldn’t dream of hanging out in Compton, you know? So, the people in Compton kind of, they like you hanging out there. It’s interesting for them, too. It’s not a one-sided thing. 

Filmmaker: But how do you feel when there are significant gatekeepers in the doc industry – festival programmers, commissioning editors, et cetera – saying documentaries about Whitney Houston or the Grim Sleeper, or Biggie and Tupac, or Tiger Woods, should be made by a Black, American filmmakers?

Nick Broomfield: Let them carry on, say whatever they want to, you know? I mean, this is dangerous, murky water to tread into. Everyone wants to look P.C. – including me. So, I’m not going to say too much. 

Filmmaker: I’ll add that this is not just relative to African American stories. Your whole approach has always been about being the outsider. Take your Sarah Palin: You Betcha! movie, where you’re going to a community like Wasilla in Alaska; you’re an outsider there… 

Nick Broomfield: You are an outsider in South Africa making a film about white supremacists too. I mean, it’s kind of the role of a storyteller. As a journalist, you probably don’t do anything very different yourself. You don’t only interview people who are white?

Filmmaker: No. And I think it would be very bleak for the documentary industry if only Brazilians could make films about Brazil, and so on. But at the same time, I do think it’s important for underrepresented filmmakers to be given a chance to tell stories.

Nick Broomfield: I mean, look. We’re living in curious times. I guess with social media and all the rest of it, the best advice to anybody is to keep your mouth shut and just keep your nose to the grindstone, and carry on with your work. It’s not a good time to be coming out with bold statements. 

Filmmaker: You’re in your seventies now. Aside from Biggie & Tupac, are there other stories or films that, with the passing of time, you look back on and think, I’d love to revisit that?

Nick Broomfield: Not that I can think of. 

Filmmaker: Well, what stories do interest you these days? 

Nick Broomfield: I recently did a film about my father, called My Father and Me, which really came about more because he was having this exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had always been quite frightened of doing a film about my family and that sort of thing; very personal. 

But I was offered money to make a film about him and it felt more like an act of cowardice not to do it, rather than one of great bravery. And it was not exactly a great financial investment because it’s not a very commercial film, but I was surprised by the amount of feedback I got at the end of that film, as with the film about Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen [2019’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love]. 

And I guess what I’m saying, in a very long-winded way, is I’ve enjoyed making much more personal films that are probably less angry. So, going back into this terrain [with Last Man Standing] was a bit of a digression from the path that I have been taking. 

Filmmaker: You were also developing a four-part BBC drama called The Catastrophist, a love story set against the decolonization of the Belgian Congo in the 1960s, based on Ronan Bennett’s 1997 novel. Is that still on the go? 

Nick Broomfield: I would have loved to have done The Catastrophists. We were going to try and shoot it in Tanzania. Very difficult politically to do that now. The world has changed so incredibly in terms of the safety of doing things.

It’s also a story really about the rise of [Congolese independence leader Patrice] Lumumba and the end of the Belgian colony. And it’s basically got two white protagonists, whereas I just felt probably that story did need to be told much more from the point of view of the Congolese. 

I did feel the world had moved on in a way, and I could imagine the shit you would get for, you know… it would be a thankless journey. I did a lot of work on it – a massive amount of research – and I went all over East Africa and to the Congo, which was something I would never have missed. It was really fascinating. 

But the moment in which we could have made the film kind of passed.  

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