The highly anticipated Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me” was released in theaters a few weeks ago. From the start, the film was plagued with issues. Not only was the film in production talks for over two decades before finally making it to the big screen,but original director John Singleton exited the film mid-production because the people involved “want[ed] to make the Tupac story that involved them and not the Tupac story” (emphasis added).2 When “All Eyez on Me” was finally released, critics and fans were disappointed, but none more so than actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, whose childhood friendship with Tupac was chronicled in the film.3
Smith publicly objected to the portrayal of their relationship, stating “Forgive me… my relationship to Pac is too precious to me for the scenes in All Eyez on Me to stand as truth. The reimagining of my relationship to Pac has been deeply hurtful.” 4She went on to reference several scenes that mischaracterized the nature of their relationship, including ones where Tupac read her the poem on the dock, their goodbye before he left for Los Angeles, and their alleged backstage argument. 5 Besides her public objection, however, Smith made no attempts to rectify the inaccurate portrayal, likely either because the time and cost of litigation was too much, or she believed legal action was fruitless because the film was a biopic 6rather than a documentary. In either circumstance, early alternative dispute resolution would have been an ideal solution. It could have circumvented defamation and right of publicity liability, and facilitated agreement between the film’s producers and the people characterized within the film.
So, why did this not happen? It was no secret a Tupac biopic was in the works; John Singleton had been gunning to create one for years. Likely, Smith never attempted to be brought on as a consultant for the project because she trusted Singleton’s vision for the biopic. The director had a friendship with Tupac after he directed the rapper in “Poetic Justice” and, after Tupac’s death, he spent a lot of time “talking to everyone around [Tupac]… and selectively piecing together their memories and [his own] memories.”7However, the nature of the film industry is such that anything can change at a moment’s notice, and Smith should have protected her characterization, regardless of her confidence in Singleton. Indeed, once Singleton exited the film, the new director and producers completely readapted the script, structure and format of the biopic. Unfortunately, this new vision did not incorporate the truth Smith was hoping for.
In general, a biopic is a film that dramatizes the life of a non-fictional person, which means the director and writer are allowed to take certain liberties that enable them to capture the essence of the subject’s soul.8For example, “Kafka” purposefully incorporated the actual life of the author into the surreal aspects of his fiction,while “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” chronicled Chuck Barris’ life as a CIA agent as told in his memoir, though highly debunked.10L.T. Hutton, the “All Eyez on Me” producer, maintained this biopic was a vision of “who Tupac was, who he wanted to be… and who he had to be.”11According to Hutton, the portrayal was not meant to recreate Smith’s relationship with Tupac, but to depict what Tupac actually wanted the relationship to be.12Granted, Tupac had no say in this portrayal of his life because the rapper was tragically gunned down at the age of twenty-five. 13Smith, on the other hand, was still alive and perfectly capable of consulting. With that in mind, what could Jada Pinkett-Smith have done to ensure an accurate portrayal of her relationship with Tupac in “All Eyez on Me”?
It was clear Smith and the producers had two very different ideas of what Tupac’s truth actually was. Early negotiating during the initial stages of development would have circumvented this issue. The producers wanted to portray the yearning they believed Tupac felt for a young Smith,
The initial meeting would have been purely informational. Neither party wanted to go to court because both parties were equally interested in creating a Tupac biopic. Litigation would have put this on hold. Here, the parties’ mutual interest was in telling Tupac Shakur’s story, but their reasons were likely quite different. Thus, it was in both parties’ best interests to resolve these differences before the project completed development, which would both avoid any legal concerns and assist in making the biopic as powerful and successful as possible.
Smith’s job, having no real power or say in the creation of “All Eyez on Me”, would have been to glean as much as she could from the producers in a collaborative manner. Ideally, this initial conversation would have been informal and conversational because there was a chance the producers were aware their intended depiction was inaccurate and did not wish to impart this to Smith. Thus, one of the most important things for Smith to learn would be what image the producers were trying to create with their film. Did they want to create the most accurate depiction of Tupac’s life and rise to fame as possible? Did they want to merely create a film that will play well with audiences, following the time-old saying “why let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story?” The possibilities are endless, but they define the nature of the potential agreement between Smith and the producers.
In addition to what image the producers were trying to create, Smith should have uncovered why they wanted to create that image. Was it based on statistics pulled from general audiences to demonstrate what will make the show financially successful? Was it based on one of the producer’s own interactions with the Tupac legacy and his need to convey his participation in it? Again, the possibilities are endless and they too define the nature of the potential agreement. Smith would have been operating from a low balance of power and needed to be very discerning with her presentation to the producers. At this point in the game, the producers were operating mostly on common knowledge of Tupac, filling in the gaps for dramatic effect. For all they knew, those gaps could have just as easily been filled with accurate information, rather than fanciful storylines.
If the producers were focused mostly on depicting Tupac’s life as accurately as possible, this meeting would have immediately circumvented many creative problems associated with the project. Smith would have been able to impart accurate details that the producers would have gladly accepted and incorporated. However, since the producers did not even attempt to bring Smith on as a consultant and Singleton had already exited the project due to the producers’ unwillingness to honor Tupac’s legacy, this situation is highly unlikely. Thus, Smith would have to come up with some value creating options to put on the table.
If the producers’ structure and script choice was based upon financial viability, perhaps there were previously unknown stories from Smith’s own personal recollection she could grant them that would still provide the same dramatic effect, while still speaking Tupac’s truth. If the producers’ choices were based upon the need to incorporate themselves into the story, perhaps Smith could appeal to their love of Tupac’s legacy (why else would they be so invested in creating a biopic?) and entreat them to honor it with accuracy. If this was unsuccessful, as a last resort she could threaten lawsuit against any inaccuracies relating to the portrayal of their relationship for either defamation or right of publicity claims, depending on the specific scene.
Likely, the outcome of these negotiations would have been a mutually beneficial resolution. The producers would have been able to create their highly anticipated biopic, full of powerful scenes from Tupac’s life that not even the most devout fans knew about prior to Smith revealing them. Smith would have been able to watch the only film in existence based upon her childhood friend without feeling pain at a crude and vaguely disrespectful characterization of what they shared, sleeping easy at night knowing she had done her part to preserve his legacy. The “All Eyez on Me” debacle is a great example of how alternative dispute resolution, particularly in the early stages before a problem has even arisen, can circumvent potentially disastrous consequences.