Tupac Shakur: A Look Back At The Rapper's Film Roles

Many know 2Pac was a prolific rapper, but did you know he was a seasoned thespian as well?
2Pac in Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson
Image Source: All About Laughs

Tupac Amaru Shakur is a legendary rapper who many consider being the greatest of all time. However, Shakur was also a well-known actor. The rapper had a nice run in the early 1990s. He starred in Poetic Justice with Janet Jackson in 1993. The previous year, he delivered an eccentric and chilling performance as Bishop in Juice.

2Pac was an experienced and successful actor. He starred in many major films through the years all the way up until his death in 1996.

Many of Tupac's film roles cast him as either a gangster or an innocent bystander in an urban environment. Murder, robbery, and extortion are some of the crimes that occur around Tupac in these films. Part of his tough-guy reputation in his music is entirely owed to his portrayal of similar characters in his films. 

Tupac Shakur in Juice
Image Source: Crooked Marquee

Bishop, The Role Built For Tupac

In 1992, Tupac Shakur starred in Juice, an iconic crime film about four boys struggling to survive in the inner city. Speaking on the proverb, "Power corrupts...", the movie shows how violence can manifest itself, even amongst friends.

Although this was one of Tupac's first films, acting was not new to him. In high school, he had attended the Baltimore School For The Arts, where he studied acting, poetry, jazz, and even ballet. Tupac's natural charisma, which he would also employ to great effect in his music career, gave him a good jumping-off point for his acting.

As far as roles go, this was also Shakur's first big shot at playing the villain. This was something that he went on to do quite well. His portrayal of Roland Bishop, the magnetic leader of the young men, earned him praise and recognition in the zeitgeist of popular movie culture.

Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice
Image Source: Amazon

Poetic Justice, Janet Jackson, and John Singleton

in 1993, Tupac was lucky enough to work with Academy Award-nominated director John Singleton. In his follow-up to 1991's exceptional Boyz n the Hood, the accomplished director decided to continue his tried and true shtick of placing musicians in his films.

Just as Ice Cube had done for him in 1991, Tupac Shakur would bring his movie some street credibility. Since the film itself is about inner-city life, Tupac was fitting. The rapper had lived in Marin City and southern California for some time and was quite acquainted with the lifestyle that Singleton was choosing to portray in this film.

Indeed, it was his co-star, established singer Janet Jackson, that lent some of her fame to the attractive duo. The film itself was a bit more reserved than Singleton's previous effort. Jackson and Shakur played well off of each other while coping with their surroundings.

Their characters' struggle to find and hold onto each other in their dangerous world is endearing at best. Rogert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times spoke on the leads' performance, saying, "Her romance with Shakur is touching precisely because it doesn't take place in a world of innocence and naivete; because they both know the risks of love, their gradual acceptance of each other is convincing."

The film earned back its budget and then some on opening weekend, taking number one at the box office on the star power of Jackson and Shakur alone. The film received mixed reviews from critics but has become a cult classic for the chemistry between the leads. 

Ebert went on to speak glowingly about the film in an extended review: "...Poetic Justice unwinds like a road picture from the early 1970s, in which the characters are introduced and then set off on a trip that becomes a journey of discovery.

By the end of the film, Justice will have learned to trust and love again, and Shakur will have learned how to listen to a woman. And all of the characters - who in one way or another lack families - will begin to get a feeling for the larger African/American family to which they belong. The scene where that takes place is one of the best in the film."

Above The Rim Promotional footage
Image Source: NME

Above The Rim, and an Established Actor

In 1994, Tupac Shakur starred in Above The Rim, a basketball/crime film that also featured Marlon Wayans and Wood Harris. The film would cast Tupac in his most sinister role since Juice, playing off of his gangster-rap character from real life. 

The film was a financial success, grossing $16 million on a budget of $6.5 million. Critics praised Shakur's swagger and confidence, with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone being one of his biggest fans.

Travers noted in his review for the film: "Still, it’s Shakur who steals the show. The rapper’s offscreen legal problems are well known, but there’s no denying his power as an actor.

Following a gentle turn in Poetic Justice as Janet Jackson’s lover, Shakur creates in Birdie a gleaming portrait of seductive evil. He’s as dangerous as the asphalt game that ends Above the Rim with a sustained roar of thunderous hoop action."

Shakur's frighteningly strong portrayal of local gang leader Birdie made him riveting to behold. Indeed, the basketball storyline added an extra layer to the crime film, and to this day it is a cult classic sports film.

Gridlock'd Promotional Footage
Image Source: Little White Lies

Posthumous Releases, Critical Success, and Gridlock'd

After Shakur's untimely death in 1996, the 25-year old actor was featured in several posthumous releases. Among the most celebrated of these films is Gridlock'd, a story about two jazz artists addicted to heroin. Shakur starred alongside Tim Roth in this, who is perhaps best known for his work with Quentin Tarantino.

Although Shakur was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas four months prior to this, his presence in the news media was as rampant as ever. As the police tried to uncover what actually happened to the famous rapper (or avoided doing so, depending on who you ask), Tupac was on the big screen in perhaps his most polished and nuanced role yet.

Director Vondie Curtis-Hall was able to relieve Tupac of his typecast gangster character and play into his persona as a musician a bit more. Roth plays Stretch while Shakur plays Spoons, two young men from Detroit who have their own band. When their friend Cookie (played by Thandiwe Newton of Westworld fame) overdoses, they decide to clean their act up and get straight.

The rest of the movie follows them through the realistic struggle against bureaucracy while they try to enter a rehabilitation program. On their way, they encounter police officers and criminals, who all remember them from their doping days.

Shakur delivers an emotionally vulnerable performance as Spoons. Indeed, this is the only performance by Tupac which can't be neatly stacked into the cold gangster archetype. That typecasting is sometimes impossible for career actors to shake is perhaps an important note on this film. Shakur, under Curtis-Hall's guidance, is able to deliver a truly original performance for his filmography. 

The film received acclaim for its realism and dark humor. Janet Maslin of The New York Times noted that Shakur "...played this part with an appealing mix of presence, confidence, and humor." To this day, this remains one of Tupac's best roles, and the film itself holds an 88% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.

Tupac's Final Film
Image Source: Entertainment Weekly

In addition to Gridlock'd, another one of the notable posthumous Tupac Shakur films, and his final performance was 1997's Gang Related. Though not nearly as well-received as his previous film, it was a new role for Tupac. He starred alongside Jim Belushi as a corrupt narcotics detective.

As an example of praise for the individual performances in the film, Jeffrey Westhoff of the Northwest Herald said: "I won't pretend to know anything about Shakur's music, but his death robbed filmgoers of an actor who only began to show his talent."

His costar, Jim Belushi remembers his time with Tupac fondly. "To me, Pac was so much more than just a rapper, he was also an amazing talent on screen," he said. "I think he would have continued to develop his raw skills as an actor and it would have been cool to see. He really wasn't afraid of anything. He was a friend & I think about him often."

Tupac in Film
Image Source: Showbiz

Closing the Book on Tupac Shakur's Acting Career

Although Tupac was a prolific film actor, he also guest-starred on television shows. Tupac's credits include appearances on In Living ColorA Different World, and even Saturday Night Live

Shakur's music is his most well-known contribution to society, but it should be said here that Tupac Shakur was an excellent actor who brought moving performances to life on the big screen. The man was vulnerable, sweet, and exuded the confidence of ten men. 

It is unfortunate that his life was ended so soon, as he certainly would have only gotten better with time. The tragic life of an artist who died at just 25 is a somber memory in the recent past.

He was a young man in a dangerous game, but he was a good man. We can be thankful that we have Shakur's artistic pursuits to watch and listen to. Shakur is missed and will always be remembered fondly in the eyes of film fans everywhere.

Joseph Poulos is a freelance writer from Michigan.

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