A look at the caring side of tough guy Tupac Shakur

August 06, 1993|By Esther Iverem | Esther Iverem,Newsday

Watch Tupac Shakur -- gangster rapper, son of a Black Panther, rage-filled young man -- break.

Watch as his heart breaks in John Singleton's new film "Poetic Justice," in which he plays Lucky, a young postal carrier in South-Central Los Angeles. See the honest, good-hearted laborer who has no concern over his dirty fingernails. So &L emotionally vulnerable that he once fell for a hooker. Hanging by a thread so thin a cousin's death causes it to snap and his eyes to spill over with tears.

Watch Tupac Shakur (pronounced Toopok Shakoor), a 22-year-old who says society has stolen his heart, show all the heart in the world. But don't expect him to acknowledge any of his own vulnerability.

"There is no softness," he says, pointing to his chest at a Midtown Manhattan hotel. "That's not what people want to see. So that's not what I want to show.

Mr. Shakur's chiseled handsome features and bushy brows give him a look as hard as his rough childhood on the streets of New York. In his debut film role last year, he played the murderous and reckless Bishop in Ernest Dickerson's "Juice." And his two rap recordings under the name 2 PAC focus on his hatred of the police and his confused prescription for championing the cause of young black men.

But "Poetic Justice," which co-stars Janet Jackson, shows the introspective and sensitive side of the young man.

"Acting is a way to state your case," he says, lounging on a couch in baggy purple denims, vest and T-shirt, his white socks stuffed into hiking boots. "You tell your story. That's what I do. I tell my story and I let go of my pain by telling. I'm just letting them see it. It feels good and then I'm back to fighting."

And Mr. Shakur, who says he stays armed and high on marijuana, is always fighting. In recent months, he's been involved in alleged infractions in the L.A. area, including assaulting a limousine driver, clubbing his own Mercedes, assaulting director Alan Hughes (of "Menace II Society") after he was fired from the film, and having a loaded gun seized when he was stopped by police. His controversies followed him to the set of "Poetic Justice," when Ms. Jackson's company stipulated that Mr. Shakur be given an HIV test if any love scenes between them occurred.

This is not a cultivated Hollywood rebel image. Mr. Shakur does not have to jockey for street, gangster or black credentials.

His mother, Afeni Shakur, whom he lives with in the San Fernando Valley, was a member of the Black Panther Party and, as one of the New York 21, spent part of her time while pregnant with him in prison.

Born and raised in New York City's Harlem, he made his acting debut with Ernie McClintock's 127th Street Ensemble in a production of "Raisin in the Sun," staged at the Apollo Theater. As a teen-ager he and the family moved to Baltimore where he briefly attended the High School for the Performing Arts before dropping out and moving to Marin City, outside Oakland, Calif.

Harlem, he says, gave him "slickness -- you know, the whole Uptown attitude."

In Baltimore he learned to play around, breaking windows or snatching trick-or-treat bags. In California, he learned about the "underground," the criminal world of dope dealers and other thugs who he said became father-figures for him.

His experiences have produced a rage, nihilism, fatalism and absence of hope that would be shocking if it didn't capture the sentiment of so many disenfranchised youth for whom he speaks.

So how does a total thug become a movie star?

Both Mr. Dickerson and Mr. Singleton have said they cast Mr. Shakur because of his street authenticity. For his part, he says he had to "thug" to get where he is.

It doesn't bother him that he may seem fatalistic. He takes no responsibility for youth he might influence. Though he expresses respect for what his mother taught him, he has disdain for her drug addiction and the frustration that so much of what the Panthers fought for seems to have amounted to very little.

"My mother gave her life to the struggle. So I'm not looking to be black people's savior."

So he says, as he breaks ever so slightly when talking about the murder of Latasha Harlins, a Los Angeles girl shot in the head by a Korean grocer for stealing a carton of juice.

If all real revolutionaries are driven by love, Mr. Shakur can't be disqualified. His rough times have hardened him to the bone but they have also given him compassion.

"A bottle of juice was not something to die for," he pauses, his eyes widening. Watch him break.

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