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The Dividing Lines

'Biggie and Tupac' and 'Two Towns of Jasper' look for insight into the killings of black men.

January 14, 2002|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

PARK CITY, Utah — "Biggie and Tupac" and "Two Towns of Jasper" have everything and nothing in common. Both are documentaries, both deal with the violent, controversial slayings of black men, and both are among the most talked-about and admired films in this year's Sundance festival. But after that, they diverge in intriguing and even provocative ways, ways that demonstrate that the nonfiction form is much more supple and adventurous than it's often given credit for.

"Biggie and Tupac," erroneously titled "L.A. Story" in the Sundance program, is an investigation into the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, also known as Notorious B.I.G. It's awash in conspiracy theories, deadly record-label rivalries, bluster, rumor and accusations, all engagingly held together by the on-camera figure of veteran director Nick Broomfield.

Broomfield, who has made about 20 movies--including "Kurt and Courtney," an investigation into the death of Kurt Cobain, "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" and "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer"--is invariably front and center in his films, popping in, camera rolling, where people most don't want him to be.

If Broomfield is entertainingly in your face, Whitney Dow and Marco Williams are persuasively self-effacing. To make "Jasper," their exceptional documentary about community reaction to the 1998 racially motivated dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. as accurate as possible, Dow and a white crew interviewed the East Texas town's white residents, and Williams and a black crew did the same with the black residents. The resulting feature proved exceptionally difficult to pull together, but its honest picture of the complexity of race relations and perceptions is compelling.

Broomfield, whose "Soldier Girl" played at Sundance in 1980, has made his share of more conventional, observational documentaries. But then he became attracted to what he calls "stories that had a big 'Off Limits' sign on them. There is a certain thing about being fascinated wherever there is a 'Do Not Enter' sign--you think the secret has to be in there."

To tell those kinds of stories, Broomfield says, "you need to employ extreme methods; you have to employ different tactics to get at that level. We live in a world that's changed, people are more frightened. They've seen it all; they're very cynical and less willing to talk. You have to get beyond that."

The director wasn't initially convinced that this film, which was begun by his co-producer Michelle D'Acosta, was a subject for him. Then came "various suspicions that Tupac's murder might have involved the Los Angeles Police Department. Then it became much more of a political story, and I felt I had a right to do it. If you're going to do something dangerous, know why you're doing it."

Broomfield is a favorite of students, he says, because his films "look simple, like they can do it, too, and it would be fun." In fact, he says, "they're a lot more exhausting to make. It took a very long time of working six-day weeks, quite long hours, no social life, completely, obsessively focusing on finishing the film. We used to say that every person we filmed took 70 phone calls, never giving up on them. And people you are talking to have to see that you really believe in what you're doing, not that you just want to put a new extension on your home. The actual filming feels wonderful because it's such a small part of the week."

Broomfield also makes use of some very specific narrative techniques. He films almost everything that happens to him, including people telling him both in person and on the phone that they won't be interviewed. "People define themselves more in what they won't talk about than what they will," he says. He's a filmmaker who thinks the journey to getting his story is at least as interesting as what that story turns out to be, and he is not shy about using himself as the film's spine.

"On a structural, conceptual level, it's more interesting than voice-over as a way to hold the film together," he says. "You're the connecting thread, taking the audience from one situation to another. The adrenaline of the relationship between you and other people, that's part of the entertainment of it."

If Broomfield (despite his acknowledged debt to cinematographer Joan Churchill) can appear to be something of a one-man band on screen, "Jasper's" insightful picture of the pain and confusion of race relations would likely not have been possible without the 25-year friendship of the two directors, who've known each other since high school in Williamstown, Mass.

It was Dow who had the idea for the film first, using phone conversations with his friend as a sounding board and being taken aback when Williams, who is African American, said, "I wasn't really surprised at what happened because atrocities like that had been committed for a few hundred years."

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