The imminent release of All Eyez On Me, the long-awaited Tupac Shakur biopic due this month, signals the perfect moment to reflect on the long, storied history of the hip-hop biographical movie. For many, Shakur’s Benny Boom-directed life history of 2Pac might indicate the rise of the rap biopic as a fashionable new Hollywood trend, a marker where hip-hop culture takes control of our own stories. Many more rap historical films are on the horizon, featuring everyone from OutKast and Nas to Pharrell Williams. What’s vital to remember is that we’ve been here before, beginning with director Michael Schultz (of Cooley High and Car Wash fame) and 1985’s Krush Groove to the Oscar-robbed Straight Outta Compton two years back.
“They got Roxanne, Roxanne that’s about to come out,” says Benny Boom, ensconced at an editing booth in L.A. working on All Eyez On Me. “Nia Long is in the movie, I believe she plays Roxanne Shanté’s mother. That’s a movie I’m looking forward to. That was also Pop Art Records, which was a Philly record label, which is a project that I’ve been putting together for a while, talking about the musical influence of Philadelphia rap that people tend to not know. I’m into telling these stories in hip-hop that are not necessarily the stories that everybody knows.”
A collaboration between Pharrell Williams’s I Am Other (Dope) and Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, Roxanne, Roxanne focuses on the tumultuous life and times of 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden in the 1980s. Writer-director Michael Larnell highlights Shanté dealing with the hardscrabble Queensbridge projects, a teenage pregnancy, and domestic abuse with her bourgeoning rap career as a backdrop. Already screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Roxanne, Roxanne is waiting on a widespread release date. But it’s a prime example of a “for us, by us” hip-hop biopic production that’s becoming the norm.
When Krush Groove—the thinly veiled, fictionalized story of Russell Simmons and the rise of Def Jam Recordings—premiered in October 1985, Def Jam had barely begun its assault on the mainstream zeitgeist. Elements like the inclusion of a rapping Sheila E. (“Holly Rock” anyone?) rang false, and the world at large had barely heard of Russell Simmons; he wasn’t quite ready for his close-up. Hip-hop enjoyed a more authentic representation with 1983’s seminal Wild Style and producer Henry Chalfant’s equally groundbreaking PBS documentary Style Wars of the same year. But the first full-tilt rap biopic title goes to Notorious.
Both 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ traveled the Krush Groove route of fictionalizing their stars (Eminem and 50 Cent, respectively) in the aughties, using elements of the MCs’ lives to make the scripts pop. But director George Tillman’s Notorious, featuring Jamal Woolard as the Notorious B.I.G. (he reprises the role in All Eyez On Me), stands as the first moment Hollywood came to terms with the fact that hip-hop history had grown old enough to shoulder its own biographical film. Tinseltown had long given other genres the benefit of the doubt when it came to putting Sid Vicious, The Doors or Johnny Cash’s stories on the silver screen. When rap was finally afforded the same respect, Notorious grossed more than twice its budget, earning over $44 million worldwide.
And critical acclaim still remains elusive: witness the Academy Awards snub of 2015’s universally praised Straight Outta Compton, the story of N.W.A.
“It’s unfortunate to think that white actors can pour their heart into movies—movies that make less money than Straight Outta Compton made—and get the praise and celebrated in that way,” actress Carra Patterson (who portrayed Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s wife, in the film) says from the Kava Café in midtown Manhattan. “But it’s all paving the way for this year. I’m glad that we did speak out, ’cause now we have Moonlight and all these great movies that are getting their due that they deserved.”
Up next? After executive producing the South Bronx hip-hop drama The Get Down over at Netflix, Nas signed a deal with BET for Street Dreams. The nascent series tells Nas’s own coming-of-age rap history, from Queensbridge in the early 1990s to his eventual, inevitable worldwide domination. OutKast’s Big Boi recently revealed talks with Empire creator Lee Daniels about dramatizing the story of the Southern rap duo. And Fox is steadily developing Atlantis, based on Pharrell Williams’s childhood in Virginia Beach.
But first up is All Eyez On Me. With a Tupac Shakur documentary announced lately from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, the USA Network true-crime series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. and an A+E Biography mini-series Who Killed Tupac? are all coming, All Eyez On Me needs to murder the screen like a 2Pac freestyle to get its proper respect among the competition. Come June 16, Tupac’s posthumous 45th birthday, we’ll all holler if we hear Hollywood.