Hindsight can’t change the past, but it can make for great television. Anthony Hemingway, an award-winning film and television director can attest to that after mining Emmy gold out of the hit FX true crime drama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Now, Hemingway is giving the world a fresh look at two of the most publicized, analyzed, and talked-about murders in music history.
Hemingway serves as executive producer on Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., a true crime drama series on the USA Network that explores the investigations into the still-unsolved murders of two of the biggest hip-hop legends of all time. In the series, Biggie and Tupac are depicted in a way these larger-than-life figures are seldom seen — as human beings. The reverential stardom, iconic lyrics, and senseless violence that are inextricable from their legacies are all on full display in the show. But Hemingway also included intimate moments between the two noted rivals (and former friends), which he gathered in his research, to tell a story that’s not just about two rap icons that were mysteriously killed less than a year apart, but also two young men who didn’t live past 25.
Along with executive producing Unsolved, Hemingway also directed three of the first six episodes of the season that have aired so far. Hemingway spoke with us recently about a number of points surrounding the show, including how social media could’ve helped solve both murders, how senseless violence repeats itself, and how Unsolved extracts the humanity from the legend.
Anthony Hemingway: I think, for myself, and this is indicative of how I approach all of my work, I really try to find an ability to really serve a purpose. We are in a crisis right now where we need so much more help in finding whatever mechanism that is for us to heal. I think it’s all of our jobs to really kind of figure out how to have a voice, and how to really be active, and try to help change all of the negativity that’s happening for us to be able to have a better world. So, with this story, for me, it was the soundtrack to my childhood and much of my life.
I’m from New York, so both B.I.G. and Pac meant a lot to me and … as two of the largest icons and artists in the game, I saw a major turnover when we lost them. And as life repeats itself … I’m seeing a lot of the senseless crimes and things that happened to them happen again. I think it’s just an opportunity to allow this platform and this ability to [add new dimensions] to this story in ways to hopefully give us something to pay attention to, and learn from, and … not repeat the wrongs that happened.
The series moves around in time a lot in the first episode. Rather than proceeding chronologically, we jump between the two investigations into these murders, from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. Was there something about the story that made you believe this was a better way to start things off?
One of the major themes in the show is perception, and how perception really challenges you. Even how perception dictates treatment. It was a gift for us to have what [Unsolved creator and executive producer] Kyle Long created here with the show, giving us different timelines. … That was the really interesting opportunity, for us to really see these two different time periods where the world was different, even by way of technology.
“If that happened today, these murders would have been solved in no time.”
You can only imagine that if that happened today, these murders would have been solved in no time, because of social media, technology, and all that. Just seeing these two friends, much alike but different, go through some of the same things. It was just this ability for us to show that the same thing can happen in different shades, different colors, and different sizes, but it all kind of connects and reflects on the same.
The tragedy of it all really is to realize that … we are going through the same issues now that happened back then. … and that happens because this segment in the world gets marginalized and disrespected, and it will go on for so long. It’s like we’re going through the same stuff right there, and [the show] really just examines that and allows us to again look at our reality.
In an L.A. Times interview you did before Unsolved came out, you said that you were able to see what works and what wouldn’t work with covering this kind of story by watching the reception of the Tupac biopic All Eyez On Me. What are some things you saw from that film that you took away from it that helped inform decisions made for Unsolved?
The bigger thing for me was really the kind of lack of humanity that was really paid to the legacies of these two young men. That’s something that … hasn’t really been done that well in the past. That’s what we really wanted to do, to really humanize Biggie and Pac. So, having seen what’s done before, it’s only an added benefit … . We were able to see, well that wasn’t touched on or this wasn’t done before. We really wanted to try to tackle layers within their lives that we haven’t really talked about or shown. And it’s really again all geared toward humanizing both of them.
“That’s what we really wanted to do, to really humanize Biggie and Pac.”
Now that you mention it, there was a scene in the pilot episode that felt so surreal because of how playful it was. In the scene, Biggie and Pac are playing with real guns in Pac’s backyard like kids playing with toy guns in the park. That was one of the scenes where I said to myself, “Tupac and Biggie used to play cops and robbers with sprinklers spraying around?” Was that scene a case of you taking a little bit of artistic license or did you hear it from people or stories that actually happened?
Well, that particular moment was true. It really happened. It even took me a minute to really kind of understand what the intention of it was, and what we needed to do. Showing that was to really remind the audience that these were kids. Just because their reality is different from other kids in a suburban environment that actually played with water guns. It was just that [Biggie and Tupac’s] reality involved real violence. The only license that I took was to add the water element to it. To give it the feeling and impression that these were kids really just having fun and being, you know, a kid.
You’ve worked on The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and now Unsolved. These are two shows based on real people, with a number of people portrayed in the shows who are still alive. Have you heard from anybody portrayed in either show?
Not anyone that’s still living. We’ve heard that [Notorious B.I.G.’s mother Voletta] Wallace has seen it and has appreciated the truth that is poured into it, and also the respect that we’re bringing to Christopher’s life by also humanizing him.
When the seasons ends, do you think there’s going to be more closure or clarity on what transpired with both of those shootings? Was that ever the goal of the show?
We never intended to approach this by solving the case. I do feel confident that there is somewhat new information. I also feel there will be some sense of closure people will get out of what hasn’t previously been discussed and shared, once you watch the entire season.
What is some new information that has already been shown in the first six episodes that you think has surprised people?
The cop shooting that happened in the pilot. So many people were like, “Whoa, I wasn’t really aware of that.” Even further with that, they realize how much that shooting influenced the time when all this stuff was happening. There are nuggets that get shared in every episode all the way to the finale. Things many people either didn’t really realize or had forgotten about.
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