Last man standing
Almost 20 years have passed since British filmmaker Nick Broomfield last investigated the by-now legendary murders of hip-hop icons Tupac and Biggie Smalls in his 2002 documentary, Biggie & Tupac. Much has changed since, most notably the long-term incarceration of former Death Row records executive Suge Knight, the man long suspected but never officially proven of having colluded with the LAPD in the pair’s deaths. Now serving a 28-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter following a fatal hit-and-run in 2015, Suge’s imprisonment has freed the tongues of key witnesses to come forward with crucial new evidence for Broomfield’s return to the story with Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac.
If his first film provided an intriguing case for institutional corruption within the LAPD’s ranks – mostly courtesy of Russell Poole, the former officer who uncovered the corruption – Broomfield’s new film all but proves it. Poole’s life fell apart following the revelations he made public, and having tragically passed away in 2015, this film takes major strides in honouring his legacy and verifying his version of events. Beyond the question of who pulled the trigger however, Broomfield’s documentary uncovers something deeper, not just the pervasive gang culture within the LAPD but the demise of three hugely talented young Black men who emerged as figures of hope within their communities before ultimately losing their way.
What sets this film apart from the countless others to have speculated on the subject are the revelations from both former Bloods and Crips gang members as well as Death Row Records employees. Few of these would ever have participated were it not for Pam Brooks, a life-long Compton resident and co-producer on this film, whose connections opened doors that would otherwise have remained shut. We sat down with Brooks and Broomfield to discuss the making of the film along with its wider implications for an already tense relationship between a city and its police force.
Finn Blythe: Pam, how did you get involved in the project and why did you feel it was an important story to tell? And Nick, what prompted you to return to this story almost 20 years on?
Pam Brooks: Well Nick had told me he was thinking about doing something on Suge and I was like, “I got you on that, I know everyone,” but he said, “Just calm down, don’t tell anybody, I’ll let you know when I’m ready.” When he said that I took off, I didn’t tell anybody, I just started doing my research because I already knew so many people. Then when he gave me the go it was on. I love doing documentaries with Nick, we have fun, we put ourselves in situations where we just keep on moving. But I come from the streets, I don’t know the gangbangers originally but I just know how to get from one hood to another and I know how to talk to these people because some people were asking, “What are you doing riding around with these white boys? They police?” I was like, “Do I look like I fuck with police?” This story right here has a lot of closure. I wasn’t involved in the 2002 documentary but this is closure even for people who knew the truth. A lot of people know the truth but they overlook the truth, just like the police covered up all the evidence but they killed two innocent people for no reason.
“I come from the streets, I don’t know the gangbangers originally but I just know how to get from one hood to another and I know how to talk to these people”
Nick Broomfield: We certainly couldn’t have made this film or got anywhere near as deep into it without Pam. Pam had contacts that we would never have had. But what got me back into doing this film, which is really a departure from my more recent work, was that I keep very much abreast of things that have happened with my old films. I was very concerned with the way that Russell Poole, the police officer from the first film, was treated. He had a very tragic life and he died in 2015 during a meeting at the sheriff’s office. I know he had problems with his marriage and he sort of died a broken man. He really deserved better, he was brave and kind of a hero. I thought the attempts to discredit him were reprehensible and then it was upsetting that the Biggie Smalls lawsuit was de-railed.
I thought they were going to be successful but watching the LAPD hide evidence and then set up this bogus task force under Greg Kading [a former LAPD detective] to come up with a different scenario of what happened was infuriating. I think Voletta [Wallace, Biggie Small’s mother] and Faith Evans [Biggie’s former wife] just had enough. They’d spent so much money on the lawsuit and every time it looked as though they might be successful the LAPD, who have unlimited funds, were able to throw a spanner in the works. They prevented the FBI, who actually believed they were right, from testifying with their evidence. And then the crowning moment I guess, was that Kading managed to get out a series on Netflix, basically announcing his theory which then a lot of people believed. I just thought it was such irresponsible journalism and also on the part of Netflix, it was a real example of no fact-checking. It just got my goat sufficiently that I decided to do this film.
“The LAPD prevented the FBI, who actually believed they were right, from testifying with their evidence”
Russell Poole, still taken from Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac
FB: Suge’s sentencing in 2018 was clearly instrumental in enabling this film to be made. Could you give me a sense of the impact of his sentencing?
PB: Well some people are sad but others are just cool because Suge did a lot of good for Compton. I used to get my hair done over at Rosecrans [Avenue], and on 4th July he would do big block parties and firework displays. But it’s called karma, you only get away with so much until you get caught, so what goes around comes around, you know what I’m saying? When he was in jail he had nothing, he was broke, he’s diabetic, I believe he has lupus, so God bless him. He’s not only doing time, he’s dying too.
NB: I think the sentencing obviously freed up contacts but I think before that Suge had really kept power through a reign of terror and people were frightened of him. So many people got killed in one way or another. I think a lot of people are still worried about talking. The other thing that happened is a lot of people had a loyalty to Suge, particularly the Blood gang members who had worked at Death Row, but towards the end, Suge was playing one gang member off against another. That’s how Mob James’ brother got killed, by his fellow gang members. I think that kind of manipulation upset people so much they started really questioning their basic loyalty to Suge.
I don’t think any of them would have taken part in the film in 2002 and talked freely about Death Row and what was going on, so I think in their eyes Suge had discredited himself by manipulating them. Then for other people, like Xavier Hermosillo, who was the judge that came forward, he believed in justice. Having worked with the LAPD for 30 years, he felt they should come clean or there should be some recognition of what they did. The same I think with Leila Steinberg, she just felt that she knew things that were very incriminating for the LAPD and that this was a good time for the LAPD to be challenged and come clean.
“I think a lot of people are still worried about talking.”
Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur, still from Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac
FB: This film is ultimately about three young Black men who started life with a lot of promise but lost their way. Why do you think that was?
PB: Well they trusted somebody. Tupac and Big were best friends and then Pac got himself in a situation and he trusted Suge who bailed him out of jail. So I don’t know if Pac felt he owed him that loyalty but Suge plays a role in Pac’s death and Tupac plays a bigger one. When Pac hit the gangbanger [Orlando Anderson] in Vegas, that’s when Suge should have stepped up and told Pac to apologise to that nigga because this ain’t your beef, stuff is going to happen. He didn’t do that, so Pac put his life on the line for somebody that wouldn’t even put his life on the line for him. So I fault Tupac as much as I fault Suge because he saw the disloyalty, he had to see how Suge treated other people, so I don’t understand what made him think he wasn’t going to betray you.
NB: I think it was three guys who all were quite brilliant in their own way. None of them were really from the street, Biggie and Tupac both were kind of scholars, A-stream students at the top of their classes, amazing wordsmiths and Suge went to college, came from a very good family, he wasn’t allowed to play with the gangbangers in the streets. But all of them were fascinated by the street and I think the folklore of the street sort of dominated their lives. When Suge came out of college he employed all the people from his neighbourhood at Death Row. Tupac, after he left the Baltimore School of Arts, kind of got in with a fairly rough crowd and I think for a long time got beaten up and stuff. He wasn’t a strong guy and then I guess he got into it through Juice and acting out this other alter-ego. The same with Biggie, he came from a pretty good family, Ms. Wallace was a teacher and pretty strict, she had a lot of respect in the community. So they all shared this thing but all became victims to it in a curious way.
Pam Brooks and Nick Broomfield
FB: This documentary is in many ways about the relationship between a city and its police force, referred to in the film as the most powerful gang in the city. What are the implications of this documentary for the future relationship between LA and the LAPD
PB: That’s kinda deep. I don’t think the police are ever going to change. I think it’s going to take God. When you get hired as a police officer you need to do a real thorough background check and see if they can do the job. If pressure makes them trip then this is not the job for them, you know what I’m saying? I don’t fuck with the police, I don’t like them, even when I was out there in the streets they mistreated me, they tried to bribe me. The police will always be dirty because people don’t know how to handle control. They don’t do a decent background check on these people. It’s like with George Floyd or anything, you can shoot people anywhere, you don’t have to shoot to kill. These people are killing us and they get away with it, there’s no consequences and it’s not fair.
NB: I guess the obvious thing is that they’re much more concerned with their own standing and their own credibility than they are with seeing the truth come out. I guess it just depends on their accountability to the community and what measures can be brought in, in terms of supervision of the police, to make sure that they are accountable and they don’t get away with every infraction. Whether it’s the LAPD or the MET, it seems like there aren’t really the structures in place to supervise police adequately.
Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac is on general release on 2 July in cinemas.