When It Comes To True Stories Like “All Eyez on Me,” What Do Filmmakers Owe to the Truth?


All Eyez on MeSummit Entertainment

On Friday, Lionsgate released the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me to a moviegoing public eager to see it, in spite of mostly lousy reviews, and the box office numbers ($27 million) back that up. But perhaps the most telling reaction to the movie came from someone who is portrayed in it, which leads us to a very interesting series of questions.

Back in the mid-80s, Jada Pinkett was a talented teenager in Baltimore, where she met a young Tupac, and the two became very good friends. It was always just platonic, and the two remained close as both their blossomed in the 90s, with Tupac exploding to superstardom before being murdered in Las Vegas in November of 1996.

Last week, after the movie came out, Jada Pinkett-Smith wrote a series of tweets slamming the way their relationship was portrayed in the film, starting with “Forgive me… my relationship to Pac is too precious to me for the scenes in All Eyez On Me to stand as truth.” It then went on to point out specific instances of events and occurrences shown in the movie that simply never happened, saying, “The reimagining of my relationship to Pac has been deeply hurtful.”

Which brings us to the questions, namely, What responsibility to the truth do narrative filmmakers have? Do they have any at all? How important is “the truth” when it comes to telling a story? For that matter, how does one determine what, exactly, “the truth” really is?

And so on. I caught a matinee of the movie yesterday morning, and, aside from being 140 minutes of my life I’m never getting back (yes, 140!), I’m sort of baffled by what, exactly, the filmmakers were thinking when they made the decision to tell the story the way they told it, and why they made the choice to exploit the rapper’s friendship with Pinkett-Smith the way they did.

Yes, I used the word “exploit,” because that’s what it feels like. Allow me to explain, without spoiling anything. Generally speaking, when someone tells me, “but this is what really happened,” my response is, “Who cares?” It’s about telling a story. And yet, there needs to be respect paid to the truth. You ask me if there’s a difference between inventing an ex-girlfriend for Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and completely fictionalizing moments between Tupac and Jada, and I say yes, there really is a difference. A big one.

Jada Pinkett Smith TupacJada Pinkett-Smith, Twitter

For starters, the fake girlfriend in Network gives us an insight into Zuckerberg’s character and motivation. The use of Pinkett-Smith’s relationship to Tupac does nothing of the kind. In fact, if you were to cut those scenes right out of the movie entirely, all it would do is slice about eight minutes out of the bracingly long running time. It would take nothing away from the story, nor his motivation, nor his character, nor anything else, other than to remove the presence of a famous name from a story that, in this telling, didn’t need it.

Additionally, when both characters in the movie are actually real people, there is some responsibility, to both the living and the dead, to at least attempt some honesty in that portrayal. When literally nothing in the film resembles the truth, then what’s the point?

I’m sure there is a great movie out there that is purely about the friendship the two had, but this not only isn’t it, it really seems to go out of its way to be what Pinkett-Smith calls it: hurtful.

Don’t get me wrong. When telling a “true” story, it’s perfectly okay to add things for dramatic intent. Two great examples are Bridge of Spies and Argo. In the former, Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, the insurance lawyer who was forced to defend accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The movie portrays him as being vilified, his family attacked, as he stands a single man alone against the hordes. It’s a major part of the movie and goes a long way to help define just who Donovan was and what he was about. The only problem is, it wasn’t like that at all. In fact, Donovan was viewed as a hero by many for standing up for the rights of the accused, even at the height of the Cold War. He had lots of support from the public, and his family was never in danger, but you wouldn’t know that from the film.

ArgoWarner Bros. Pictures

Same goes for the Best Picture-winning Argo. That big, climactic scene at the airport where the Iranian Secret Guard almost catches the Americans trying to escape and then chases the plane with guns? Yeah, that never happened. The Americans walked right on the plane, the plane took off, and that was that, no drama or intrigue about it. But it adds a nice beat of excitement to the film, so who cares, right?

Is it hypocritical to say that these two instances and the fake girlfriend in The Social Network are okay, but what they do in All Eyez on Me isn’t? I don’t think so, because the other three instances all add to the story. When you’re doing something that doesn’t help the story at all, like the exploitation of Pinkett-Smith in this movie, which is just artifice for the sake of it, that’s when you’re crossing a line.

Ultimately, any time you’re telling a story based on something that actually happened, it’s a delicate balance. Nothing is ever going to be exactly as it occurred because it’s not a documentary. Inherently, there has to be some fictionalization involved. However, while a storyteller needs to focus on telling their story, when that story is based on reality, they must also adhere to at least the spirit of the truth. Something about this, the use of Pinkett-Smith in the movie in completely fictional moments, feels icky.

This is one of those times when a little effort could have gone a long way. Instead of having someone who was portrayed in the film decry it for that portrayal, the filmmakers could have had her celebrate it. The box office clearly didn’t suffer because of this, but still, it seems to me like a pretty giant missed opportunity to do something right.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.


1 Comment

  1. Interesting. Another recent example, Hidden Figures, the real Katherine Johnson has said that when she worked for NASA there really wasn’t much conflict with her co-workers. Everyone was viewed as being equals with a singular goal. The stuff added about segregated bathrooms was also highly fictionalized. Although the bathrooms were segregated the rule wasn’t actually enforced so the famous scene with Costner breaking the colored sign was all made up (as was Costner’s character). I think people need to understand when they watch a depiction it is a heightened account, not fact based.

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