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The Tupac Biopic: What Took So Long?

“It’s gotta make money,” Mr. Boom said. “There’s a lot of added pressure to succeed for films of our nature, centered around urban culture. These types of movies don’t come along all the time. It’s important that it does the numbers so the next story that wants to get told in this space can get told without Hollywood shutting it down or saying it doesn’t sell.”


Dominic L. Santana, left, and Demetrius Shipp Jr. in “All Eyez on Me.”

Quantrell Colbert/Summit and Codeblack Films

Even with an immediate precedent — “Straight Outta Compton,” the 2015 drama about the rap group N.W.A, grossed more than $200 million worldwide — “All Eyez on Me” has faced an array of obstacles, said L. T. Hutton, a veteran record executive and one of the film’s producers.

“They act like it didn’t happen,” he said of the N.W.A film’s success, citing theater owners and film distributors, and in an interview 10 days before the release of “All Eyez on Me,” added, “I’m still arguing about screen count and the viability of this project.”

In discussing the development process, he recalled years of incredulity from fans and associates confident in Shakur’s wide-ranging appeal: “‘You had to convince people to do a Tupac movie!?’” Mr. Hutton said. “Yes. One-thousand percent.”

The struggle wasn’t only with outside forces. The film, originally conceived in 2008 by Mr. Hutton, along with the production company Morgan Creek, was delayed for years amid a court battle with the rapper’s mother, Afeni Shakur, over life rights and creative control.

Though the parties eventually settled, with Ms. Shakur granting use of her son’s music catalog and agreeing to serve as an executive producer, the biopic continued to cycle through writers and directors — including Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), John Singleton (“Boyz N The Hood”) and Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress”) — before production began in late 2015. (“Real talk!” Mr. Singleton wrote on Instagram in April of that year. “The reason I am not making this picture is because the people involved aren’t really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur.”)


Trailer: ‘All Eyez on Me’

A preview of the film.

By LIONSGATE on Publish Date June 15, 2017.

Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

Watch in Times Video »

Ms. Shakur, a former Black Panther and long a careful steward of her son’s legacy, died in May 2016; she is ultimately not credited as a producer of “All Eyez on Me.” The Shakur Estate — now under the leadership of a trustee, Tom Whalley, and Shakur’s aunt Gloria Cox — has not publicly supported the film and declined to comment on its release or Ms. Shakur’s role, though the estate has touted in the press its authorization of a coming Tupac documentary by the Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”).

Mr. Hutton insisted that he and Ms. Shakur saw eye to eye on the content of the film and that he took her big-picture suggestions without protest. “She was involved early on,” he said, referring to a list of about “15 or 20 things” that she was most concerned about. “I would never disrespect her wishes.”

Among her preoccupations, he said, was that the film not dwell on or sensationalize the East Coast-West Coast feud that boiled around Shakur and his friend-turned-rival, the Notorious B.I.G., who was killed in a shooting six months after Shakur. (Both cases remain unsolved.)

“She wanted to make sure that we did not perpetuate the nonsense,” said Mr. Hutton, who worked with Shakur late in his career at the infamously turbulent Death Row Records. “She didn’t want this film to have young black men killing each other. That’s not what this film is about. This film is about inspiration.”

It’s also a cautionary tale about gun violence, he added. “We deal with the tragedy that these two young brothers never got a chance to resolve their issues,” which Mr. Hutton called “just a misunderstanding.”


The rapper Tupac Shakur in 1994.

David Rentas/NYP Holdings, via Getty Images

“All Eyez on Me” hoped to avoid re-litigating the most controversial moments in Shakur’s life and career, including his 1994 conviction for sexual abuse and the robbery that year at a recording studio during which he was shot five times, leaving him hardened and paranoid. That is why the film relied chiefly on his point of view and stated version of events.

Jeremy Haft, a writer on the film, recalled the guidance he received from Mr. Hutton: “Tupac has already told his story, you just have to listen.” Mr. Hutton had compiled hundreds of pages of interview transcripts and other research into what he referred to as the “Tupac Bible,” a text to be consulted at any moment of narrative uncertainty.

“I would use that to slam the gavel on any debate,” Mr. Hutton said. “So many people think they know exactly what Tupac was and there’s so many misconceptions. We didn’t have to argue — Tupac has the final say.”

Still, the writers sought to tell a “warts and all” story, said Mr. Haft, who started on the script in 2013 with his writing partner, Eddie Gonzalez. (A third writer, Steven Bagatourian, is credited for his work on an earlier version of the screenplay.) But when it came to depicting the sexual-abuse incident the filmmakers again hewed mostly to the rapper’s perspective. Shakur maintained his innocence even after being convicted of groping a woman during an encounter in a hotel room. (He was acquitted of weapons and sodomy charges.)

In “All Eyez on Me,” Shakur is shown receiving oral sex from the woman at a club, a version of events corroborated by her real-life testimony in court. The next time they meet in the film, in his hotel room, she gives him a massage before he turns down her sexual advances in favor of sleep; when he wakes, she is accusing the rapper and his entourage of rape, a sequence that could bring scrutiny, especially after “Straight Outta Compton” was criticized for glossing over its subjects’ treatment of women.


Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, in New York in 1970.

David Fenton/Getty Images

“We took Tupac’s point of view, but we really leave a lot of it to the audience,” Mr. Haft said. “We didn’t want to make her look bad, but we wanted to be true to Tupac.” Mr. Hutton added: “I just play the scene and what you draw from it is what you draw from it.”

As with most cradle-to-grave music biopics, the writers of “All Eyez on Me” also struggled with checking the career-highlight boxes without feeling like a Wikipedia-style summary or hagiographic caricature. “Everyone knows the swagger, the bravado,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “We wanted to hit those quiet, intimate moments.”

The film is most affecting in its depiction of Shakur as a son, brother and friend — for instance, being quizzed as a child by his mother on Nelson Mandela or learning Shakespeare alongside his confidante Jada Pinkett (played by Kat Graham), at the Baltimore School of the Arts, where he wrote poetry and performed in plays.

“It was really important to spend a chunk of time in his childhood and adolescence,” Mr. Haft said, “to show that he grew up with social awareness and a sense of social justice.”

That sensitive and cerebral essence remains even as Shakur grows more calloused from repeated arrests and experiences on both sides of a gun barrel. Though the barking renegade with the front-tied bandanna and “thug life” belly tattoo remains the most enduring image of Shakur, the film is adamant about spotlighting his softer side even in the moments leading up to the shooting on the Las Vegas Strip that would ultimately kill him.

“People think he was all controversy,” said Mr. Shipp, 28, who studied Shakur’s distinct speech patterns and mannerisms on YouTube. “He was much more layered. He was a revolutionary, a true leader, a voice for the people.”

Mr. Boom, the director, said those behind “All Eyez on Me” have tried to channel that grass-roots spirit in promoting the film, which he said would live or die on its perceived authenticity. “This wasn’t a money grab,” he said. “We’ve been on the ground really stomping for this movie, campaigning the way that politicians campaign.

“We’ve made sure to make ourselves present to let the audience know, hey, the filmmakers are not some guys behind a desk somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard. We really are from this culture.”

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