In a wistful moment, former rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight muses about what might have happened if the architects of that business "were friends, instead of destroying each other." That's the inherent tragedy in "American Dream/American Knightmare," director Antoine Fuqua's documentary about Knight, which is premiering on Showtime.
Fuqua, the director of movies like "Training Day" and "Southpaw," conducted extensive interviews with Knight in 2011 and 2012. Although Knight isn't always the most reliable narrator, the filmmaker gives him the latitude to tell his tale, describing a world of money, power and violence, while alternating between explaining and lamenting those dynamics.
Arts and entertainment
Music and dance
Rap and hip-hop music
Those conversations -- conducted long before Knight's sentencing to 28 years in prison in October, having plead no contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge in a hit-and-run death -- shed light on a larger-than-life character, from its tough beginnings to the founding of Death Row Records.
A one-time football player, Knight freely discusses the code by which he operated, while tiptoeing around questions about the extent to which he employed force in order to get his way. He does suggest that regardless of what methods were used to open doors, he had to be smart enough to know what to do after getting inside.
Fuqua's approach isn't necessarily journalistic, but rather seems designed to let the mogul relate his own story as he experienced it. That includes his version of events regarding the Las Vegas killing of rap star Tupac Shakur in 1996. (The movie was actually produced a few years ago but never released theatrically, and has been updated since Knight's trial.)
Even the self-serving nature of Knight's monologue, however, helps illustrate the swagger that guided his success, informed by a desire to warn rivals that he was someone not to be trifled with -- as he puts it, "a serious beast."
As Death Row prospered in the early 1990s, the label became an enormous cultural force. Beyond the feuds and interpersonal dynamics, that includes its role in articulating anger toward the police and providing the de facto soundtrack for the civil unrest that erupted in Los Angeles after Rodney King beating not-guilty verdicts.
"As men from the ghetto, we all failed," Knight says at one point, an assertion filled with irony, given the massive amounts of money that Knight and his contemporaries, including Dr. Dre, generated.
In the press notes, Fuqua describes Knight's story as "a cautionary tale," and there are certainly aspects of that in his almost Shakespearean rise and fall. Yet "American Dream/American Knightmare" perhaps functions best as a snapshot of a moment in time -- one as stubbornly opaque, in some respects, as the dark glasses that Knight insists on wearing.
"American Dream/American Knightmare" premieres Dec. 21 at 8:30 p.m. on Showtime.