The 1997 murders of Tupac Amaru Shakur and Christopher Wallace, aka “Notorious B.I.G.,” were events that sent shockwaves from coast to coast and even on a global level. Everyone has heard theories of who did what, ordered what and was behind the infamous and bloody year almost two decades ago, but in Brad Furman’s latest film, ‘City of Lies,’ one theory is explored in depth.
‘City of Lies’ stars Johnny Depp as Russell Poole, who in 1997 was investigating the murder of Wallace, and what he uncovered goes deeper than just Tupac vs. Biggie or cop vs. civilian. At a time of racial tension, the murder investigation is brought to a halt by the ones who were supposed to be leading it themselves—the LAPD. After journalist Randall Sullivan, a friend of Poole wrote the 2002 book ‘LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal,’ the story of corruption and cover-ups came to light. Forrest Whitaker plays a character similar to Sullivan, named Jack Jackson. Although he’s fictionalized, he plays a crucial part in the story for a number of reasons.
Furman—who is from Philadelphia—was ignited by the story, and it would take every page in this paper and beyond to describe the amount of work he went through to tell it truthfully and justly… But he did give the scoop on some of what inspired and kept ‘City of Lies’ alive despite a numerous amount of setbacks.
When you first heard this story, what compelled you to want to make it into a film?
I’ve been leading with knowing this film isn’t at all about me. It’s really about the messaging and the significance and importance of Mrs. Wallace and the Poole’s fight for justice and the truth, but also sort of the larger reality of this story… You know, the world in itself, the responsibility we have as individuals and what’s going on with Black America today. Biggie is one of the most iconic figures in the world and surely in Black culture, so if his life could be lost at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department and corruption and cover up could equally go down to not allow it to be solved—then it could happen to anyone.
Don Sikorski, my dear friend and a wonderful investigative journalist, he actually created a podcast called ‘The Dossier’, recently inspired by all the work that we’ve got to do and did at the time of the movie. Don is the one who initially, over a decade ago, gave me ‘The LAbyrinth’ [but] subsequently we were not able to secure the rights to the book. Don and his wonderful self kept an eye on it for years, and [he] let me know the rights had come up. But, in a nutshell, and most importantly, I felt in having read the book and everything I knew about it that it was an explosive story. I thought it was a modern-day JFK and I thought it would be a tremendous honor and responsibility to be a part of pulling back the curtain on the corruption and injustices that occurred.
The story is driven by Johnny Depp as Russell Poole, and then Forrest Whitaker’s character of a fictional journalist. What did Whitaker’s character bring to help tell this true story?
There’s a tremendous clash of race within the infrastructure of the Los Angeles Police Department due to the time and an era of what had transpired in the country with O.J. Simpson, the Rampart scandal and Rodney King. LA was just in a really unique time, and the manifestation of that clash was happening in this microcosm of the Los Angeles Police Department… it was a result of that. This is very unique and significant to the overall story. It’s why I start the movie with a little bit of our faux documentary that sort of leads you not only to the information of who Christopher and Tupac are, but [also] the background of all these other things going on.
The decision to fictionalize Forrest’s character Jack Jackson was originally based off of the best way to frame this relationship of black and white between Russ Poole and Jack Jackson. Now, interestingly enough, I didn’t get into it. The movie rights were acquired through a person who knew I was interested as a gift to me, and I had no idea that they were doing that. What they did was enlist a particular screenwriter Christian Contreras to write the first and second drafts of the script, unbeknownst to me, which is a little bit different than how I would typically pack breaking down a true story. I don’t know if I would have jumped so fast, not saying they did, to fictionalize elements of a movie, but it more so happens by an amalgamation of time.
But, with a direct answer to your question, No. 1, when I received the screenplay they already had Jack Jackson, who I believe was inspired by Randall Sullivan, a dead friend of Russell Poole. So, if you look at it, you have Randall Sullivan and Russell Poole—that’s the relationship. They chose to fictionalize Randall Sullivan for their reasons, but I thought the race dynamic and that clash of race going on in the country and the LAPD, and the city of Los Angeles in particular was a really unique way to frame the movie.
Why was it important for you to have permission from Christopher Wallace’s and Russell Poole’s family for this film?
Especially with respect to public figures, you don’t always need certain rights, once you have the rights to the book on this you don’t need anything else. I was not comfortable in any way, shape or form making a movie without the complete blessing and support of Mrs. Wallace and the whole family. Russ was friends with Randall, so the Poole family really was on board for the movie from day one due to the fact that this book was created by Randall Sullivan with Poole.
Nobody had contacted the Wallace estate, and even though I was “onboard” the movie and brought on as the director, I just was unwilling to make the movie without Mrs. Wallace. Sergio Rigoletto was not only was the lead detective on the Wallace family civil suit against the Los Angeles Police Department, he also happened to be the supervisor while Russ Poole was at the LAPD for a portion of his tenure. Sergio was super game to get on board the train and help me and allow me to open the doors to reinvestigating the case, and I told him I wanted to reach Mrs. Wallace, [because] I wouldn’t do this without her blessing. He was able to help me get her number, and I reached out to her and we built a really beautiful friendship on the phone over the course of six to nine months.
What are you hoping that audiences take away from the film?
It’s not an easy movie. I’ve had a lot of people see the film and tell me how much it’s angered them. So it’s not necessarily an escapist film. It’s very hard hitting in that regard; I didn’t know any other way to make the film other than to go for the jugular with respect to, you know, our investigation of the case, and how the facts were coming out. I think we have enough evidence to attempt to substantiate Russell’s theory… We started with the book, we did the investigation of our own, and then that led us to the FBI, who’s theory lined up exactly with Russ Poole’s theory.
So I think in answer to your question, it’s a multifaceted answer: On one hand, I really am honored to stand side by side with Mrs. Wallace and with the Wallace estate in their fight for truth and justice and their inexplicable tie to the Poole family and the Poole family for the same thing. When the movie was originally made and supposed to be released in 2018, the movements of social justice Black Lives Matter and George Floyd had not transpired. I was adamant that the murder of this man spoke to all African-Americans, it wasn’t just like some guy got killed. Mothers are afraid to have their children go into the streets today, Black mothers in particular, obviously because of what’s going on in the world. So I think the movie does speak if you’re willing to dive into the much larger, significant issues. Hopefully, the movie will provide insight, value and meaning. But it starts with each of us as individuals demanding notions and the facts of truth and justice.
‘City of Lies’ is available to watch now through VOD.