The filmmaker opens up about his past life as a rapper, why Tupac endures, and John Singleton.
Rapper, actor, poet, some say revolutionary: Tupac Shakur contained multitudes in his too-brief 25 years on Earth. He dated Madonna, beefed with Biggie Smalls, survived a robbery shooting, released a No. 1 album while serving a prison sentence for sexual abuse—enough out-loud living for an O.J. Simpson-style miniseries. Director Benny Douglas inherited the challenge of conveying all of Tupac’s triumphs and contradictions for next month’s biopic All Eyez on Me. Starring Demetrius Shipp Jr., an actor with an eerie resemblance to the hip-hop icon, the film promises to touch on everything in Tupac’s life with all the assurance of 2015’s Straight Outta Compton.
Professionally known as Benny Boom (Next Day Air, S.W.A.T.: Firefight), Douglas has lensed over 200 music videos—including clips by Nicki Minaj, Nas, and Robin Thicke—and began his entertainment career as an aspiring rapper himself. Born and raised in Philadelphia, the director spent most of the 1990s in a hip-hop milieu as an unofficial member of Channel Live. (His nom de rap was inspired by lightweight boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.) Athletically stocky, Douglas once served as security on Spike Lee’s Clockers before finally scoring assistant director jobs for music video legends Hype Williams, Director X, and Paul Hunter. We shared some spirited conversation as he worked on last-minute editing in Los Angeles.
GQ: Did you ever meet Tupac?
Benny Boom: I never met Tupac. I think me knowing him and respecting him as a fan from the outside made me the person that was needed to make this movie. The other directors [John Singleton, Carl Franklin] involved in the project had intimate relationships with Pac. They knew Pac, they were friends with him, or had worked with him before. There was a lot of stuff that would not have made it such a clean slate and the objective approach to filmmaking we’re able to do here. I think the historical importance of Tupac is a hard story to tell, and needed to be guided by somebody who had his best interests at heart in the storytelling, and not be self-serving in any way, shape, or form.
You were once a rapper. Was there anything about that background that informed the way you captured the ambiance of the film?
The beautiful part about it is that my whole career I’ve been filming rappers. I hate that I was a rapper at one point in time [laughter], but the great thing about this is that we had people with us every day who actually recorded Tupac in the studio. We had L.T. Hutton, who was a producer on the film but also was a producer at Death Row Records. We had Demetrius Shipp Sr., who is the father of the kid that’s playing Tupac—he produced Tupac. We had Money-B with us from Digital Underground. We had E.D.I. Mean from the Outlawz. We were surrounded by people who were with Pac every day, so we didn’t miss a beat when it came to how he recorded, his personality on the mic, how he liked to do the songs. What we tried to do was incorporate all of those things into the movie based on first-person accounts of how he was.
What resonates about Tupac worldwide? I’ve seen people wear his T-shirts from Paris, France, to Lagos, Nigeria.
Man, that’s a hard question. I think he was a born leader. He was a man who was determined to do everything on his own terms. Martin Luther King is assassinated. Malcolm X is assassinated. These are our leaders. The kids born in ’68 and later, walking into our grandparents’ house, you would have JFK and Martin Luther King and Jesus on the wall. That was what we had.
When rap came, rap was our salvation. We started to look at artists as the new leadership. What was really speaking to us were the Slick Ricks, Rakims, and KRS-Ones of the world. A lot of us wanted to be LL Cool J because he was so cool; he was everything we wanted to be, with the gold chain, the Kangol, the sex appeal that everybody wanted to have. Tupac is a combination of all of that. This is why his star shines so bright, because he embodied all of those things. He filled the gap, he filled the role that was lost. This is why I think he connects so much all over the world.
“The community we have of directors of color is very small. I’m not saying you’re supposed to go out and cheerlead for everybody. But there needs to be support.”
Director John Singleton departed the project in April 2015, saying “the people involved aren’t really respectful of the legacy,” and he’s taken repeated shots at All Eyez on Me since. Do you have any comments?
I know John, and this is the first time I’m speaking about it publicly. But I feel like we have brothers who you think are supposed to support, and they don’t support. The community we have of directors of color is very small. I’m not saying you’re supposed to go out and cheerlead for everybody. But there needs to be support. And support sometimes just means not saying anything. I would never take shots at my brother. I’m not gonna do that because I know how detrimental it is, especially to someone who laid the groundwork and opened up doors. I respect John for that. John was nominated for an Academy Award as director, for screenplay and director. Brother [Barry] Jenkins won Best Picture, but we still don’t have the Best Director win.
I just felt disappointed about the rhetoric. I understand he’s disappointed in the process. But Tupac was not happy with every single person he came in contact with by the end of his life, and we know this. The Hughes brothers, John. There’s several people out there who he spoke openly about not being friends with.
This project is happening the way that Pac wants it to happen, and there’s nothing that’s gonna stop it. At the end of the day, what God has for you, can’t nobody take away from you. So John has to understand that God did not line this project up for him. That’s it. And if he was to understand that, then he would stop talking about it. We’ve talked on the phone and communicated about it. I’ve expressed my disappointment, and that’s all I can do. At the end of the day, I got a movie coming out June 16, and that’s what I need to be focused on.
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