Starting seven years ago, the director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter, The Equalizer) sat for a series of conversations with Suge Knight, the co-founder (with Dr. Dre and the D.O.C.) and former CEO of Death Row records, the label that launched the solo careers of Dre and Snoop Dogg, and was 2Pac’s home before his death. Some of these interviews take place in a restaurant. Sometimes Knight eats ravenously; at points, Fuqua leans in and presses, as if trying to get a friend to say the right thing in front of a hostile audience. Other times, the two talk on a yacht. None of these conversations are particularly revelatory. Knight is given to aphorism and, obviously, to anything that will burnish his own myth. And being that we’re well into the third decade of Suge Knight as a public figure, it really is mesmerizing to watch the man, sunglassed and chomping on a cigar, insist that his greatest asset is — and always has been — his distaste for the spotlight.
American Dream/American Knightmare, which premieres Friday night on Showtime, is not quite hagiography, but it allows its subject the final say (and often the only say) on virtually all the key moments in his personal and professional lives. Given how central he was in a number of the highest-profile moments in rap in the 1990s — and given the voluminous reporting on some of those moments — it can be strange to hear Suge’s claims go unchallenged. This is one of AD/AK’s fatal flaws: it cannot commit to being an inside-baseball document for people already well-versed in Dr. Dre’s contract situations and Jerry Heller’s court briefings and all of the other murky stories surrounding Knight, and yet it does not take the bird’s-eye view and effectively hammer home the cultural significance of the rap music made in L.A. County in the ’90s (though it does drop in perfunctory footage of the Rodney King beatings). You’re left to wonder whether it might be more interesting to see Fuqua’s conversations with Knight in full, rather than cut up and stitched back together to adhere to a traditional documentary arc.
All of which sounds harsh. In truth, Fuqua attempts something very difficult — getting Suge to respond directly to questions without veering off into whichever Great Man tangent he’d like to communicate. At times, Fuqua succeeds. Knight is not an easy subject. In many interview settings, a question like “There’s a lot of speculation about, at that time, the way most companies got started in the rap game was through drug dealing and all that. What’s your thoughts on that?” which Fuqua asks on the yacht, as opposed to something like “Was Death Row started with drug money, and how do you feel about the claims — and lawsuits — that suggest it was?” would be unforgivably softball. But Suge has to be nudged along rather than yanked. Fuqua’s buddying up pays off when, as the two circle the Vegas strip, alone in a car, he says to Suge, point blank: “Some people say that you had Biggie murdered because of Pac’s murder.”
The sequence in Vegas is by far the most affecting and impressive part of the documentary. Fuqua has Knight, who’s driving, re-create Pac’s assassination step-by-step. This is intercut with footage of Suge answering questions on a hotel balcony. Some of Suge’s responses on the subject are characteristically self-aggrandizing, like when Fuqua asks what Suge saw in Pac, and Suge takes a long pause and then says “myself.” But others, it seems, colored by real pain: the way he talks about Pac’s fixation on building an unassailable street reputation after he was already a superstar casts Suge as a big brother who will never fully move out of mourning. He recounts Pac ribbing the first responders on the way to the hospital — calling them broke for being unable to figure out the seatbelts in his luxury car. And there’s a staggering moment where he describes the fear he saw in the eyes of Pac’s shooter. Shortly after that, Suge pulls over, opens the driver-side door, and vomits onto the street.
Also in Vegas, Suge points out the absurdity of the conspiracy theory that he orchestrated Pac’s murder — who would hatch a plan that involves taking a bullet to his own head? But Suge’s defense of himself here is telling of his worldview: He stresses to Fuqua that Pac would be worth more to him alive than dead. Suge claims later that this view was not shared by Jimmy Iovine, who called him, Suge says, right after the death and yelped, “You can’t beat a dead man’s sales!”
One idea that Suge hammers in AD/AK is the idea of his strong-arm tactics in business negotiations as rightful retribution for the way record companies exploit their artists, and especially their black artists. The documentary does not probe the Death Row business practices — though Fuqua does ask Suge about the rumored “red room” where aspiring rappers would be beat down after subpar auditions — but does allow Knight to argue that bullying rival executives into paying his artists more money was righteous. Which raises the question: Isn’t he right?
The most pleasant surprise of the documentary is the warmth and openness from Suge’s parents and two of his uncles. They speak glowingly about Suge as a young man and as an adult, and seem, generally, like unfailing nice, buoyant people. Alone with Fuqua, Suge tells one of his maybe apocryphal stories that is supposed to explain his character: He says that in a home that was often crowded with grown men and women and a few other children, he would sometimes be left hungry if he didn’t assert himself before all the food was gone. The way Suge tells the story leans heavily on the idea of Compton as neo-Darwinian hell; the way his mother talks, you figure maybe she just miscounted the hot dog buns one afternoon.
The interviews for this documentary were completely wrapped before the end of 2012, and so Suge’s current incarnation is broached only in brief bookends. And while Fuqua does not fawn, the finished product is more or less an overview of Knight’s life through his own eyes. This will not give the uninitiated viewer a comprehensive or particularly accurate view of the Death Row era. But when you consider it a minor piece of the impressive and still-growing mountain of reporting on that moment in hip-hop history, it is interesting to see the myths Suge has led himself to believe, even if he has a more difficult time convincing the viewer.