In the heat of aggression, with the brim of his White Sox cap facing onlookers and the stud in his nose facing his opponent, a slight yet forceful young man is pressed against another on the brink of violence.
From across the field, an older woman spots the commotion. She heads over to intervene and separate the two combatants. The one in the Sox cap releases the other from his grasp but continues to bark profanities for anyone who will listen.
Waiting to get a word in edgewise, the older woman pulls the young man aside and guides him by the small of his back down a hill, away from the crowd. “When was the last time anyone told you how important you are?” she asks, gently.
“You’re the best we have. We need you desperately. Do you know that our people stood on auction blocks for you? Did you know that we got up after sunrise and slept after sunset so that you can stay alive—so that you can be here this day?”
The young man’s aggression melts into regret, and he begins to weep. Using her hand as Kleenex, soft and wrinkled with wisdom, the woman slides her palm across his face and traces the cusp of his eye with her thumb.
Moments later, after the man and the crowd and the violence have all dispersed, a young woman with a nose as wide as her smile, and box braids tumbling down her back hurries toward the older woman.
“Dr. Angelou,” she yelps. “I can’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur!”
That wasn’t a scene from All Eyez on Me, as All Eyez on Me was a rushed, incomplete, and carelessly produced depiction of what the average Wikipedia reader would think to be Shakur’s life.
That moment between Pac and Maya Angelou was shared on the set of Poetic Justice, the rapper’s second film after his breakout role in Juice the year prior.
Much has been written about the flawed ways in which All Eyez on Me tells the story of Tupac, including a particular scene that clumsily recounts the rapper’s alleged sexual assault of a woman in his New York hotel room—and in terms of remembrance, the omission of Pac’s time on the set of Poetic Justice doesn’t feel unrelated to that type of error in narrative.
Starring alongside Janet Jackson, Pac’s portrayal of a young postal worker named Lucky rang true to the way he actually viewed and interacted with the world off-screen. Perhaps more so than his portrayal of a homicidal teen named Bishop.
On some level, most fans associate Tupac’s transition from Shakespeare-loving goofball to "Thug Life"-screaming outlaw with the ways in which his role in Juice consumed him—he “was” Bishop is a common thing people say. But that comparison is low-hanging fruit and an oversimplification of a notoriously complex man.
A parallel that’s less simple, harder to romanticize, and thus often looked over was his connection to Lucky.
Like Pac, Lucky was a bright, spirited young man, with a passion for music and creativity. Also like Pac, Lucky was deeply troubled, ill-tempered, and quick to misdirect his anger at others. Most often caught in the crosshairs of both men were black women.
In Poetic Justice, the first time we see Lucky interact with a woman, he storms off muttering “crazy black bitches” after being denied by Justice in front of her boss.
Conversely, throughout Tupac’s real life dispute with Biggie—whom he wholeheartedly believed set him up to be murdered—the first person to catch hell was Faith Evans, as he claimed to have been successful in some kind of dubious courtship of the singer.
Literally, the first words he directed toward his foe were “first off, fuck your bitch,” before declaring “you claim to be a player but I fucked your wife.”
True or not, he dragged Evans’ name through the mud as a way of putting points on the board—a play that spoke more to how little he thought of her as a woman than how much he detested Biggie as a man.
There was always something disparaging and downright contemptuous about the way Pac spoke of women and their agency. In All Eyez on Me, during a conversation that according to Jada Pinkett Smith did not happen backstage, but according to Pac’s disregard for most women absolutely could have happened elsewhere, the rapper played by Demetrius Shipp Jr. considers Faith Evans a “casualty of war” in those lyrics.
In Tupac’s mind, women and their identities served whatever purpose he wanted them to.
For every Maya Angelou whom he revered and respected, there seemed to be a C. Delores Tucker whom he dismissed and disdained. And for every “Keep Ya Head Up,” there seemed to be a “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch.”
“Wonda Why” is a gaslit record wherein the rapper mansplains to women everywhere the only way to avoid men calling them bitches is to not “give up” the one thing those same men spend their entire adult lives trying to obtain from them.
“In the locker room all the homies do is laugh. High fives ‘cause another nigga played your ass,” he raps.
The record was also a direct response to Tucker, who spoke out against the routine degradation of women in “gangsta rap” lyrics.
“Dear Ms. Delores Tucker,” he recites at the end of the song. “You keep stressing me, fucking with a mothefucker’s mind. I figured you wanted to know why we call them hoes bitches.”
That word’s utility was as pronounced for Lucky as it was for Tupac. In her apartment, understandably enraged by her drug use in front of their child, Lucky refers to his ex as a “scandalous ass, trifling ass, bitch ass hoe.” In the mail truck, inexplicably perturbed by how quiet she is, he asks Justice if she’s “one of them angry bitches...a feminist.”
Outside the truck, after his friend Chicago slaps Justice’s friend Iesha in the face, and Justice asks, “You ain’t gonna do nothing?” he replies, “Hell no, that’s their business.”
It’s impossible to watch that scene without thinking of Ayanna Jackson, the woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Shakur and two other men that night in New York. At worst, the rapper forced himself onto an unsuspecting fan who previously admired him. At best, he merely stood by, cowardly, while others did.
No matter how many times we play “Dear Mama” on Mother’s Day or nod our heads to “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” there’s no washing over Tupac’s mistreatment of certain women. There’s no escaping the fact that the way he regarded women he disliked was as hypocritical and riddled with as many contradictions as all of his other stances throughout his short life.
“I love women,” he once confessed to Angie Martinez. “Jail has made me appreciate women. But I hate bitches even more because I love women now. They make it bad for real women. They make it so when I meet a real woman, she’s scared of me—because of this bitch that said I raped her.”
Having died at 25 years old, there’s a more than decent chance most of the complexities we attribute to Tupac were byproducts of age. If he would have lived to be as old as JAY-Z is now, who once professed a similarly toxic ideology on “Bitches & Sisters” back in 2002, perhaps he would have matured in kind.
But as we manage to suspend our values, allowing us to celebrate the anti-heroism that made Tupac the perfect fit for Bishop, we can’t then ignore the misogyny that made him the perfect fit for Lucky. That’d be a fragmented account of why he was such a tragic figure.