Revolutionary. Fly guy. Lover of women. Accused rapist. West Coast G. East Coast marked man. Provocateur. Poet. Martyr. Over the course of his conflict-filled 25 years on earth, before being snuffed out by a spray of assassin’s bullets on a Las Vegas boulevard in 1996, Tupac Shakur was many things to many people. “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world,” Pac famously said.
On Friday, coinciding what would have been the firebrand MC’s 46th birthday, he turns into something only a handful of hip-hop recording artists have managed to become before him: the subject of a major motion picture biopic.
Summit Entertainment’s long gestating All Eyez on Me drops the needle on Shakur’s life before he even emerged into the world—attending a Black Panther rally while still in the womb of his outspoken activist mother Afeni Shakur—then proceeds to detail the assassination attempt, rape charges, tireless recording booth sessions, jail sentence, East Coast-West Coast rap beef, and deal with the devil (specifically, Death Row Records’ thugged out impresario Suge Knight) that kept Tupac in the glare of the cultural spotlight and at the top of the album charts until his final breath.
“There’s who he was, who he wanted to be and who he had to be in order to survive in the world he occupied,” explains Eyez producer LT Hutton, the former head of A&R at Death Row who had a close personal relationship with Shakur and spent the last nine years setting up the film. “My responsibility was to give you a full picture of the complexities of this man so you can form an opinion. And if you already have one, you get a little bit more compassion through this story. This is not a fluff piece.”
Finding genesis in 2008—before the first mainstream hip-hop biopic Notorious (2009) arrived in theaters and long before Straight Outta Compton earned critical raves and became a box-office phenomenon—All Eyez on Me has had a rocky road to the screen. One characterized by producorial in-fighting, big money lawsuits and a revolving door of directors, including Academy Award nominee John Singleton who has lambasted the project publicly and on social media.
Now, in an era when the performer’s musical legacy has been burnished by two decades of non-stop radio play, his personal politics are mirrored by the Black Lives Matter movement, the cult of personality surrounding Pac remains undiminished by time and—most confoundingly—his killers still have yet to be brought to justice, Eyez stands as the first of an oncoming gold rush of Tupac-related or -centered TV and movie projects. Most notable among them: 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s feature-length documentary about the rapper that was announced in May as part of a new deal with Shakur’s estate/Amaru Entertainment (the company controlling the rights to Tupac’s image and music set up by Afeni, who died at age 69 last month). “I am extremely moved and excited to be exploring the life and times of this legendary artist,” said McQueen, who won a best director Oscar in 2014. “Few, if any, shined brighter than Tupac Shakur. I look forward to working closely with his family to tell the unvarnished story of this talented man.”
USA Network has picked up to series a true-crime drama titled Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. which will reportedly focus in on two major police investigations into the killings of Shakur and the Brooklyn rhyme-sayer also known as Christopher Wallace; it is set to air early next year. Toward the end of 2017, A&E network will broadcast the six-part documentary series Who Killed Tupac? (examining key theories behind his murder vis a vis today’s social justice movement).
Then there is the planned rap bio-drama DPG 4 Life—to be produced by frequent Shakur collaborator and member of Tha Dogg Pound Daz Dillinger—that focuses on Pac’s embattled tenure at Death Row. And LAbyrinth, a biographical crime-thriller, stars Johnny Depp as a disgraced LAPD detective investigating the murders of Biggie and Tupac.
Which is all, perhaps, only too appropriate for the first solo rap artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (last month), whose enormous discography of posthumous albums includes several multiplatinum hits—1997’s R U Still Down? (Remember Me) and Until the End of Time among them.
When it came to setting up All Eyez on Me, however, Hutton points out that Hollywood had yet to awaken to the commercial potential of the Makaveli MC. “It was difficult to convince the studio—especially studio heads who don’t have a clue about who Tupac was,” he says. “There wasn’t a format. Notorious hadn’t come out. There wasn’t a blockbuster where I’m walking in saying, ‘Give me $35 million to make the Tupac movie.’“
As far back as 1997, Amaru Entertainment began exploring the possibility of setting up a biopic. But after some initial interest by studios including The Weinstein Company and MTV Films, the project languished until Hutton’s on-boarding in 2008. The longtime urban music stalwart, who maintained a sideline interest in moviemaking even while working with artists including Snoop Dogg and Mariah Carey, began facilitating a deal with the production company Morgan Creek. But within a year, things got contentious; Morgan Creek sued Amaru Entertainment for breach of contract (having to do with the sale of Tupac’s life rights). And Amaru countersued for $10 million, claiming there had been no binding agreement to violate. By 2011, the matter had been smoothed over—at least enough for Morgan Creek to begin putting together film financing. Afeni Shakur never publicly commented on the pre-production contretemps.
And Hutton remains vague about how resolution was achieved. “The type of woman Ms. Shakur was, do you think she would have been silent for eight years while we made a picture if it wasn’t going to be right?” Hutton says. “At the end of the day, she never said anything about it. And we moved forward. Nobody else can show you a piece of paper with her signature on it saying they have the ultimate rights to make the film. Nobody else has that for a film or documentary.”
In the intervening years, a roundelay of acclaimed African-American directors has come and gone from Eyez. Among them, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) and, most notoriously, John Singleton. In 2015, the Boyz n the Hood director—who previously cast Shakur in a starring role in his 1993 romantic drama Poetic Justice—took to Instagram to vent spleen about certain creative differences with the producers. “The reason I am not making this picture is because the people involved aren't really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur,” Singleton wrote. Then, at ComplexCon in November, he said before a live audience: “I did a great script and I thought they were going to go forward with it, but because I’m so mouthy and opinionated, some people don’t like to work with a black man in Hollywood who has an opinion. I knew they weren’t going to make a good movie at all and they didn’t.”
According to Hutton, Singleton has not seen a single frame of the finished film and is in no position to criticize it. “I can’t say why he’s so disgruntled. What I can say is, the selfishness, you can see why it wouldn’t have worked,” says Hutton. “Because, to make this about you, to steal the shine from Tupac, is the reason we had to separate. You cannot make the ‘Tupac and I’ story.” He continues: “The fact of the matter is, he had 18 years to make the movie. Why not make it then? Why wait to get on my project and have creative differences and then you get let go?”
Starring Demetrius Shipp Jr., a 28-year-old newcomer who bears an uncanny resemblance to the “California Love” rapper (and manages to distill the spirit of Shakur’s swagger and sensitivity), All Eyez on Me will undoubtedly provide a crash course on Tupac for Gen Y viewers who may know his music but know little of the man. The filmmakers refer to the film as Pac’s “bible.”
The person who ultimately ended up directing All Eyez on Me, Benny Boom—whose filmography includes features such as S.W.A.T.: Firefight and Next Day Air, in addition to helming more than 200 music videos for the likes of 50 Cent, Akon and Diddy—never met Shakur. And he feels that lack of personal investment provided much-needed objectivity that could only help bring a wildly controversial, multifaceted story subject to life on screen.
“When you take on a movie like this, there’s an understanding that comes with it: responsibility,” says Boom. “We know that there are people alive right now who tried to do harm to Tupac—I’m talking about before he got killed. I had phone calls with those guys. Suge was talked to. We didn’t shy away from anything. Even in death, his ‘enemies’ loved him.”
Which is another way of saying that even in death, Tupac remained many things to many people. “His is a great story about a complicated young man with a lot of promise who was was struck down before he got to fulfill his life’s goal,” the director says. “I wanted to get it right.