More than just a musical luminary of his generation, Tupac Shakur is considered an iconic figure of contemporary American culture. From college courses based on his lyrics to live performances featuring virtual holograms of the artist, and even a short-lived Broadway musical, his influence is still felt more than 20 years after his death. Tupac’s life story is now the subject of a major feature film, All Eyez on Me, directed by veteran music video director Benny Boom. Boxoffice spoke with the director, who discussed his approach to adapting the life of the hip-hop legend to the silver screen.
Tupac is cultural icon. When approaching a film like this, how do you balance the need to do justice to the subject with wanting to make an entertaining film?
After having read the script, it was clear to me that it was a very personal story, even though it has a much larger scope. That really dictated my approach in shooting the movie. I wanted to show Tupac’s world in a very personal way. Even though it’s a massive story that takes place over 25 years — from before he was born to his death — it’s never disconnected from the personal side of Tupac. I didn’t want to make it so epic that it was out of the scope of reality, because Tupac was such a real person.
When tackling a biopic you want to make sure that the person’s life story can be structured in a way that works inside a narrative. What aspect of Tupac’s life does this film portray?
There are so many ways this story could have been told. This film is really about the moments in Tupac’s life that put him in that car on the night of September 2, 1996. You get a chance to experience all the decision-making moments, all of the characters in his life, defining moments like the FBI storming his house when he was a child because of his mother’s association with the Black Panthers — all of the things that played a big role in his upbringing and in his life. Instead of becoming a bank robber or a revolutionary, he became a poet and took his activism on the verbal stage. It wasn’t until he was shot in New York City that everything started to change for him. The film tackles all of that stuff — it tears away the iconography, the legend status, and the mythology around Tupac. We want people to see the man in this movie.
I’m struck by the prevalence of Tupac’s mother in the story. Can you go into that relationship in more detail? Why was it important to include that dynamic in the film?
I was raised by a single mother, so it was a very personal story to tell. I’m the same age as Tupac — I’m born in July, and he was born in June of 1971 — so there are a lot of connections I felt with him on a personal level. I grew up in Philadelphia and had my mom and other family members around to raise me just like he did, that communal way of living, and it was important to tell that story. A lot of times you don’t get a chance to find out what makes a person tick and what drives a person. His mother had a lot of passion, and a lot of what he did would not have come to be without her. They go hand in hand, and we wanted to make sure we could highlight those points. We wanted a general audience — one that maybe associates Tupac with thug life — to see who this man was, how he came to be, and what drove him.
An overarching theme in the film is Tupac’s reticence at accepting his role as a black leader. There always seems to be a tension there, the responsibility associated with that role always in the background.
Tupac became a leader begrudgingly. In the beginning of the film, you see what black leadership and being anti-establishment meant: it meant being hunted by the FBI and police. More than anything, he wanted to become a rapper, but due to the nature of who he was and his DNA, he couldn’t help but become that leader. Once he created “Thug Life,” he was forced to turn that into a call to arms for the ghetto, for black music to come together — taking a spin on the negative connotation of the word “thug.” It was spinning that word in a positive way; he wanted to galvanize the gangster experience, because that’s who we was: he was part gangster and part revolutionary. It’s not something he set out to be, it’s not like he started out thinking he would become a leader, but through circumstances he became one anyway.
Tupac’s life isn’t without its dark moments, particularly when it comes to his association with sexual violence and the misogyny in some of his lyrics. How did you approach those matters in the film?
At the end of the day, Tupac was a hip-hop artist and that’s hip-hop music: it can be misogynist and it can be racist at times. At its worst hip-hop can be the most ugly thing in America, and at its best it can be the most beautiful thing in America. We didn’t want to sugarcoat anything; we wanted to put it all out on the table for everyone to see: there was ugliness in Tupac’s life. Being a child of hip-hop myself, as a music video director and creator of the visuals that complement the music, I didn’t want to sanitize anything. I love hip-hop music; I was raised on it. Some of it is straight and some of it is terrible, but all of it is true.
Casting is crucial in biopics. How involved were you in that process?
I was very involved. Demetrius [Shipp Jr.] was shown to me by a producer and I was sold. He embodied everything that was Tupac. To me, it wasn’t worth doing this if we had to come up with a cheap imitation of Tupac. The movie would fail with an actor walking around with a bandana and grunting. It would have been an epic failure. We needed to come up with someone who was an embodiment of Tupac, and Demetrius was able to do that — the nuances and idiosyncrasies. It isn’t until you see the real Tupac at the end of the movie that you realize this kid is really on point. Kat Graham, who plays Jada Pinkett, is someone I’ve known for several years. Dominic Santana, who plays Suge Knight, is a guy from North Carolina who lit up the room when he came in to read. He already had the size and wasn’t trying to be Suge — he just has that same imposing personality.
As a longtime music video director, which Tupac song would you have most liked to direct a video for?
“So Many Tears.” When you see the movie you’ll notice we put it in such a poignant moment. It speaks to his life, what he was going through, and why he’s so significant.
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