Tupac Shakur is dead and in demand. His posthumous rap album, The Don Killuminati, is still charting; books and films about his thug life and murder, at 25, are in the works; and his penultimate movie, Gridlock'd, is out for the new year. Then there's Bullet, a 1994 actioner with Shakur and Mr. Box-Office Jinx (Mickey Rourke). Once deemed un-releasable, Bullet goes directly to video on Jan. 21. Exploitation? You bet.
Cut some slack to Gridlock'd, which premiered on Jan. 18 at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival and features Shakur's best and most appealing performance. The film is a comedy, the first in a six-film career of gritty urban dramas that began in 1992 with his bad-teen role in Juice and will end in the fall of 1997 with his bad-cop role in Gang Related, which wrapped just a week before Shakur was gunned down in a Las Vegas drive-by, on Sept. 7. Ironically, the only critical juice that Shakur ever collected on film, and that includes Poetic Justice (1993) and Above the Rim (1994), was gang related. The rap on Pac was that he made a great screen threat.
Shakur was praised for social realism, which is racist cant for saying that he never made a movie that didn't have a gun in it, that didn't ballyhoo drugs or bash women as bitches, that didn't feature Shakur playing himself. Never mind that Shakur began acting at age 13 (onstage in A Raisin in the Sun), that he received training in his craft at the Baltimore School for the Arts and that he could be astonishingly inventive at characterization. Most audiences thought his films were documentaries.
It's revision time. A closer look at Shakur onscreen reveals an actor of subtlety and substance. In Ernest Dickerson's Juice he went gonzo with a handgun, but not before he tried to mend some dangerously frayed family ties. His first line in Juice is, "Good morning, grandma." What people remember him saying is, "Don't nobody fuck with me." In John Singleton's flawed but ambitious Poetic Justice, he delivers mail - a job that he hates and that keeps him from his gang - to earn enough money to rescue his daughter from her freebasing mother. What people remember is the way he dissed Janet Jackson as a "crazy black feminist bitch." It's the stereotypes that stick.
Gridlock'd encourages fresh thinking. The film marks the feature writing and directing debut of actor Vondie Curtis-Hall, of TV's Chicago Hope. Though Gridlock'd is fiercely funny and sometimes just as fiercely violent, Curtis-Hall permits Shakur to play a grownup instead of a boy in the hood.
As Spoon, Shakur is one third of a luckless trio of performance artists who work fringe clubs in Manhattan. That's Spoon on bass; Stretch, played with rude exuberance by Tim Roth, on keyboards; and Cookie - a fine, frisky Thandie Newton - speaking poetry onstage. The three live together, share food, drugs, sex and a mutual affection that deepens when Cookie ODs on New Year's Eve and is hospitalized.
Spoon decides that it's time to kick heroin. "My luck's runnin' out," he says. Stretch reluctantly agrees to join him for detox, and so begins a series of misadventures as the duo's desire to get clean on the city's dime keeps hitting hilarious and often harrowing bureaucratic walls. Curtis-Hall's schematic plot doesn't allow for many surprises, but the sly team of Shakur and Roth gives the material a sharp comic edge even when they're on the clichéd run from drug dealers and cops.
For once, Shakur isn't the thug with the gun. He fights hopelessness with humor, shows love for a woman and tenderness to a friend. A strung-out welfare mother tells Spoon, "God bless your eyes." You can see what she means. There is a sweetness in Shakur that doesn't jibe with his arrest record. In his music, Shakur often rapped about the lure of thug life and its futility. It's the hip-hop paradox. There is no telling what direction Shakur might have taken had he lived, but Gridlock'd is alive with the promise of an actor who was comfortable in his own skin. This gritty guerrilla comedy freed Shakur from the gridlock of his gangsta image and let him do what he ultimately couldn't do in life: buck the system and win.