THE SIX MOVIES that Tupac Shakur made before his death -- and which continue to eerily flow, post-mortem, from Hollywood -- beg many questions and offer few answers in return. "Gang Related," Shakur's final film, released Wednesday and dedicated to Shakur's memory, for example, gives a glimpse at his substantial but unrealized and underdeveloped talent as an actor. It's also a strange commentary on Shakur's death and the myth-making machine that ratchets up a gear every time a Tupac record gets dragged across a cash register scanner or a ticket for a Tupac movie gets torn. What it leaves us wondering is this: How much did America lose, in an actor, in that Vegas drive-by shooting, and what did it gain, conversely, in an icon?
"Gang Related" prompts the sad conclusion that Shakur spent his last months filming a movie that's best described as not too bad. Much of the time, though, it's pretty terrible. Shakur and his costar James Belushi muddle through a convoluted, incomplete story about corrupt cops who get in a pickle when one of the many drug dealers they've ripped off and then murdered turns out to be an undercover DEA agent. Screenwriter and director Jim Kouf can't decide until the last 20 minutes whether the film should be a slapstick Keystone Kops affair or a brutal "Bad Lieutenant" one, and never bothers to explain how Belushi and Shakur -- who think they're just doing society a favor while conveniently lining their own pockets -- got to the point where they feel that premeditated homicide equals public service.
Clearly the actors weren't given much to work with, but neither does much to help the situation. Like Kouf, they imagine no background, no history and no motivations for their characters. Belushi blusters and hectors as Divinci, a salt-of-the-earth police veteran just trying to retire to Hawaii, and Shakur, as his partner Rodriguez, is often simply blank as a young officer with a crushing gambling debt. Shakur doesn't connect with his character deeply enough to be convincing, a defect in almost all of his roles.
Yet, Shakur's performances are still striking because his powerful charisma fills in the gaps. He doesn't so much inhabit a role as cover it with his vitality and poise. Presence was something Tupac conveyed in his rapping as well -- he brought the same depth of passion and emotion to the screen and the recording studio. It's that presence that has made every single one of Shakur's film appearances exciting, if not brilliant. It's a magic that's hard to describe and impossible to pin down. Clichis spring irresistibly to mind -- he was "loved by the camera," or he "set off sparks" when he appeared on-screen. His presence felt like a sun or a star, drawing in everything around it with a massive gravity, emanating light and heat.
That presence, while innate, was far from unthinking. Shakur, with his teenage training at the elite Baltimore High School of the Performing Arts, knew exactly what he was doing. He knew how to summon an air of intensity, or humor, or pain and how to deploy it to dazzling effect. But the roles he got were thin, and whatever distractions were tugging at him during his last years kept him from taking that spark and plugging it into a three-dimensional character whose soul could be glimpsed between his lines.
The closest Shakur got was Spoon, a musician hooked on heroin and struggling to get clean in Vondie Curtis Hall's "Gridlock'd." Spoon -- smart, sweet, funny and loyal -- resembles a streetwise mother hen trying to keep everyone and everything around him together. When he decides to kick after his girlfriend lands in the hospital with an overdose, he's determined to bring his less-than-enthusiastic buddy Stretch (Tim Roth) with him. With Spoon, you can sense a past, a history that's brought him to this point. This is thanks, in part, to Hall's nuanced script, but also to Shakur's efforts to get inside Spoon's head and map the nooks and crannies of his psyche.
Several years earlier, Shakur also created a breakthrough role in Ernest Dickerson's "Juice." Playing Bishop, a teenager who turns to crime as a way to control his life and winds up losing his mind instead, Shakur captures the confusion and conflicts of adolescence, then turns up the heat as Bishop loses his grip on reality. Bishop shares some qualities with the personas that Shakur created in his music -- rage against a world where the scales are tipped against him, defiance, determination to succeed against the odds -- and Shakur digs deep into Bishop to make vivid the point where his sanity breaks. But Bishop also suffers from the lack of background that plagues most of Shakur's roles. As critic Armond White writes in his forthcoming "Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur," "talent and force isn't a justification for ignoring how Bishop's anger just pops out of nowhere. Bishop's behavior is cut off from reason, suggesting a desperate freedom to young viewers."
The cold reality is that the cumulative screen time Shakur racked up in the six movies he made since 1990 (a rather impressive achievement in and of itself, considering the simultaneous demands of his recording career) doesn't give us enough to judge whether or not he was "the tan DeNiro," as critic Nelson George once speculated. "Poetic Justice," "Juice," "Above the Rim," "Bullet," "Gridlock'd" and "Gang Related" offer only glimpses of a talent yet to be fully tapped. What moviegoers lost with Shakur's death was the chance to see what kind of actor he would have been, to see his charisma blossom into something greater and deeper.
We're left instead with the macabre opportunity to deconstruct Shakur's films in the light of his death. And there's plenty to work with. Violence and guns surrounded him on celluloid. In four out of his six roles he was cast as a criminal; in the other two he portrayed men trying to escape the criminal life. He shot and was shot at often, and now those shots echo the gunfire that killed him. There are other ironies -- less cerebral ones. The soundtrack of "Gang Related," which features four of Shakur's previously unreleased songs, is being released by Death Row records. Shakur's mother, Afeni, is currently suing Death Row for royalties she says are owed to her son's estate, and Death Row's CEO, Suge Knight, now in prison, is rumored to have had a hand in Shakur's death.
The impulse to idealize Shakur will undoubtedly seek to paint him as a genius, as both a musician and an actor. It's almost as if the public needs him to have been one in order to make his death matter, or at least matter enough. One more dead, famous, young black man just looks too regular. But his movies will stand beside his records, and together his works will tell the whole story, of talent, yes, but of negligence and confusion and pain, as well.