"Please be patient with me," a frail-looking Afeni Shakur tells the crowd inside the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard. She's just flown in from her farm in North Carolina for the premiere of "Tupac: Resurrection," the documentary she produced about her only son, the rapper and actor Tupac Shakur. She's fighting back tears as she describes the four years it's taken to complete the story of her son's prolific, chaotic, sometimes self-destructive life. "This is such a bittersweet victory for me, to get this on the screen for everyone to see, and to finally understand my son's life fully. But it's so hard for me to watch, to see my child who is no longer here."
But for the next two hours, Tupac is here, practically leaping off the screen in all his brash vibrancy. He even narrates the film himself, thanks to clever editing of old interviews. In fact, Tupac, who was murdered in 1996 at the age of 25, has never really been laid to rest. Some fans even believe he faked his death and is living undercover--perhaps next door to Elvis. A new line of clothing, named for his alter ego, Makaveli, will go up against P. Diddy's Sean John products in time for Christmas. Six albums have been released since his death--more than appeared during his lifetime--and so far they've grossed more than $40 million. This makes Tupac Shakur No. 8 on Forbes magazine's richest deceased celebrities list, just behind Dale Earnhardt and ahead of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Bob Marley and Frank Sinatra. (At the time he died, he had less than $150,000 in his bank account.) With "Tupac: Resurrection'' opening on more than 800 screens, a companion book and a soundtrack album with guests Eminem and 50 Cent, Tupac continues to be the world's most successful hip-hop artist. "I don't worry about the cats out there now," says 50. "I worry about Tupac and what he's coming out with. It's like he's just around the corner, still ruling things like he always did."
Much of the credit for Tupac's life after death belongs to Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther whose 90-pound frame hides a spirit tough enough to wrest away the rights to her son's master recordings from gangsta-rap impresario Suge Knight, the most feared man in hip-hop. During her Black Panther days, she spent eight months in jail, charged with conspiring to bomb public buildings in New York, and won her own acquittal without a law degree. In later life, she won an even harder battle--against crack addiction. She instilled in her son a passion both for the arts and for his African-American heritage. When young Tupac got into trouble, her preferred method of punishment was to make him read the entire New York Times and then quiz him on it.
Tupac's first love was the stage. He joined a community theater, then went on to study drama, music and dance at the Baltimore School of Performing Arts. But when his mother moved the family to California and became addicted to crack, Tupac dropped out of high school and decided rap was his only ticket to success. He worked as a roadie, then got a record deal and released his first solo album, the 1991 "2Pacalypse Now." His gift was to explore a side of black-male angst rarely expressed openly--a combination of volatility and vulnerability. "Tupac and his music spoke to his times," says Kevin Powell, a hip-hop historian who spent many hours with him. "You can see it today in the walk and attitude and bravado in the faces of young people all over America, particularly those who are poor and completely marginalized from mainstream America. Tupac gave a voice and meaning to those people.'' At the time of his death, he was making moves toward a parallel career in acting, starting with an unforgettable debut turn as the crazed murderer in the 1992 film "Juice."
But money and fame also brought trouble--and Tupac was never one to walk away. He was arrested several times for assault, jailed on sexual-abuse charges and charged with shooting two off-duty police officers who he said were harassing him. (He was later acquitted.) In 1994 he was shot five times in a New York recording studio--and lived to rhyme about it. "People wonder how I lived with five shots," he rapped on his 1996 album "All Eyez on Me." "N----rs are hard to kill on my block."
That episode provides an eerie conclusion to "Tupac: Resurrection," in which we hear him talking over an image of a peaceful desert landscape. "Who shot me?" he intones. "S--t, I don't know." Of course, we're meant to think of his murder in Las Vegas two years later, which is still unsolved and which the documentary largely avoids. (Nor does it delve much into the intriguing subject of Tupac's time at Suge Knight's Death Row Records, where he spent the last 10 months of his life after Knight paid $1 million to bail him out of a New York jail.) "We really let the film discuss Tupac's life to the extent that he had discussed it in interviews," says the director, MTV's Lauren Lazin--and she notes that he gave few extended interviews during his final year. "No one knows what really happened at the time of the murder, and the film's purpose is to give people Tupac and his life story in his own words, with his own explanations and thoughts. It's really about his life, not his death."
And Tupac himself, who was seldom at a loss for words, makes a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant autobiographer, riffing on everything from social issues to Shakespeare, full of passion for a life he seemed fully aware would end too soon. "No one could tell his story the way he could," says Afeni. "Everybody who ever met him tried to, but they didn't get it right. Everything Tupac said was introspective. He was really honest with himself about himself. He knew his flaws, but he also had such love for his work and his people. He really felt the pain of African-Americans deeply and wanted to be a part of the change." His friend and collaborator Snoop Dogg puts it another way. "Tupac put the 'real' in 'keeping it real'," he says. "He was the realest n----r you could ever meet."
An overwhelming presence in Tupac's reality, though, was the prospect of his own death. In one of his most powerfully disturbing songs, he repeats over and over the prophetic title: "How Long Will They Mourn Me? Now we know. For a lifetime.