Before we could even process the death of Hip-Hop legend DMX, we are still sorely heartbroken about the unsolved murder of The Notorious B.I.G.
However, filmmaker Brad Furman and the Christopher Wallace Estate, Mrs. Voletta Wallace (mother) and Wayne Burrow (former manager) have pulled together an intriguing crime movie, “City of Lies,” based on the “Labyrinth” book by Randall Sullivan.
Starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker, the movie explores how the corruption of the LAPD made it virtually impossible for Biggie’s death to be solved.
AllHipHop.com sat down with director Brad Furman and producer Wayne Burrow to break down the importance of the film and why Biggie’s mom gave it her stamp of approval.
AllHipHop: Brad, if you could talk about yourself for a little bit and then Wayne if you can?
Brad Furman: I’m Brad Furman. And I’m the filmmaker and director. Very honored to be here with you today very honored always to be with Wayne. Wayne produced the movie with me and without him and Mrs. Wallace we could have never made this film. And, you know, it is an investigation into the corruption institutionally of the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD and you know the details and facts of what we uncovered in our version of a reinvestigation based off the book “Labyrinth” by Randall Sullivan. When I got that book, it was almost a little over 10 years old, so I felt a deep responsibility to do a version of a reinvestigation and in the Wallace civil suit.
Sergio Robledo, who has sadly passed was the lead investigator on the case. Johnny Depp plays Russ Poole, the lead detective, you know, in the Wallace murder for the LAPD at the time, Sergio Robledo was his supervisor at the time during his tenure for quite a long period. And Sergio was invaluable, obviously, prior to his passing, and, you know, connecting me to the Wallace estate and to Wayne, but also really in helping me reinvestigate the case. And that’s really where it all began for me. And that’s essentially in theory and a bit of practice how Wayne and I got connected.
Wayne Barrow: How yall doing, this is Wayne Barrow. First off, I want to start by at least acknowledging a fallen soldier, a good brother. DMX. A powerful voice spoke to the darkness in a lot of people and has had his own darkness to his life. But he was a shining light on so many different levels. And I just want to say rest in peace to him. And my condolences and prayers to his family, the Ruff Ryders, and the whole team. God bless him and God bless you guys.
I managed Notorious BIG, with my partner Mark Pitts. And in life, and in death, I manage Mrs. Wallace and helped her manage the estate over the last 24 years. And I came upon this film, through the connection of Brad of course, who reached out, indicating that he needed some help. And you know, he was doing this wonderful film. And we sat, we watched, we talked and at the end of the day, it was something that we just couldn’t pass on, because it was too important to not only BIG’s story but the culture of Hip-Hop.
It’s very, very, my opinion, thought-provoking. It’s very, very strong in terms of the lead characters, Johnny Depp and Forrest Whitaker. And in terms of the story, this is not just about Notorious BIG, and I want to be clear on that because it’s more about what we as black and brown people face every day. And that’s police corruption, inequality, things that are speaking true to us today. And I think that you know, it was just as prevalent then, as it is now.
The differences now it’s more broad, and more of a focal point because of social media. And I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we’ve lost a friend, we lost a father, son. And you know, a lot of fans out here still trying to understand what happened. No different than the family, but my obligation is to make sure that people hear the truth. And that was the purpose of us, myself and Mrs. Wallace coming on board to help navigate this thing to where it is now.
AllHipHop: I definitely think that you guys made some really great connections in the film, and you drove home some points that many people might have, missed. The idea that the LAPD were hesitant to kind of go full in because they were in the shadows of the Rodney King verdict. Talk about the connection between, from what you saw as presenting it as a drama, The LAPD’s juxtaposition of the Rodney King trial and Biggie trial.
Brad Furman: I think there was a race war that was existing inside the department that was born out of things post-the era of Rodney King, and the OJ trial. And politically, what happens is, when you’re dealing with this bureaucratic system, Russ Poole, as the investigator, for example, he was very simple in the fact that he just wanted to protect and serve because he believed that that was the duty that he was supposed to. And agreed to do.
But politically, as we see, in many businesses, and this is about business, and money, and greed, and all these other things, other things become priority. And that was not something that Russ in particular could really deal with. And that that’s really the beginning of the larger challenge in all this. And that’s where this gets really tricky because the truth wasn’t really honored. And the corruption was so deep, and the relationships, unfortunately, between certain police officers who are individuals who are not honoring their code and the relationships they had with Death Row.
It’s a unique web. That’s literally why the book was called Labyrinth. It’s a labyrinth, it’s pretty wild, and you see through the movie, we start one place, and we go another, and another, and they’re all very much interconnected.
Wayne Barrow: I just want to speak on something real quick. There’s a lot of theories that have been flushed into the marketplace. And, you know, just like anything else. There are facts, then there’s truth, then there’s reality. And not all times you get all those things in one to get a better understanding or a true gauge exactly what happened, right? This film speaks from a factual standpoint. There’s nothing about it that stands on theory or ideologies, or notions, these are facts. And these facts can be presented. This is about people’s lives. It’s about finding out what really happened, how it happened. And who did it, this is not one of those “who dun it cases” in terms of a mystery if you will.
The facts point to some real, real, strong elements that really kind of give you a lay of the land of what happened and how it happened. However, there’s a lot of things still, that can’t be spoken on, because one, the case is “still pending.”
Two, we also want to make sure that the facts that are presented are presented in a way that we can actually deliver to you exactly the information necessary for you to truly understand the dynamics of not only what this film represents, but what inequality and police brutality and the essence of bringing us to a place of understanding our own shortcomings, if you will, by presenting the facts, the way that we are actually doing so not only in this film but just in so many different people across the board speaking out about the black and brown people’s element of being able to elevate. And become more purposeful in life. In the eyes of others, I think that’s a very key fact.
AllHipHop: Was that part of the reason why you chose to work on this drama versus possibly doing yet another documentary because maybe dramatically showing it makes it hit harder?
Wayne Barrow: You know what? At the end of the day, it’s like you could tell so many Biggie stories you can tell so many things about not only his life but his death. You can talk about the different levels of corruption across the board, whether it be in the music business, how we’re talking about police brutality here, or corruption or deception, or whatever you want to classify it as. But at the end of the day, I think that this story was so important that it needed its own face, it needed its own sensibility if you will. Yes, it’s about Christopher, it even mentions Tupac, God rest his soul. But at the end of the day, though, none of that really matters. Because what matters is the core of the story. What is the core story? How does it relate how they relate to the people? How would it relate to the viewers? How does it affect you? Right, from an emotional standpoint, from a connectivity standpoint?
I think if you look at it from that standpoint, then this is just a crime drama that’s dope as s###. We’re bringing you the reality of what happens in these communities day after day, night after night, right? Mothers are afraid to send their sons out to go to the corner store, just to pick up a pack of Skittles, or sending their daughters to walk outside because you don’t know how these people are going to attack them. Right. It’s just a lot of different nuances that we could speak about in so many different terms. But the bottom line is this is a crime thriller. And it’s a crime thriller, that we live in our community every day and it needs to stop.
Brad Furman: I think, in addition to what Wayne was saying, for me as someone who was a fan of Biggie, a fan of Pac, and the deep influence that black culture and them as individuals has had on me, I felt a very deep responsibility in making the movie to humanize these gentlemen. Because when you were when you become this massive, iconic, larger-than-life figure, we as other human beings and fans lose sight of the fact that Biggie he was a father, and that Biggie was a son to a mother.
So that’s why it was so crucial and important to me, to have the blessing and support of Mrs. Wallace and Wayne and everyone and work hand in hand with them. Because I felt a deep burden of responsibility that I couldn’t take on this responsibility and challenge without hand in hand. And I don’t have the experience of being Black or Brown and walking those shoes. So it’s even more important that I understand that. And I’m aware of that. And being cognizant of that, make sure that we’re all working together. And change is something in a large way, that is really hard to do. But it does start with each and every individual.
So if the movie, ultimately from a messaging standpoint, makes you angry, which people have said to me, or makes you stop and think or makes you question, then maybe just maybe from an individual standpoint, and then a collective standpoint, we can begin to start asking the hard questions, but really making the right choices within ourselves, to do the right things as individuals, but equally to demand the people within the institutions to be doing the right things as well. And as Wayne said, it’s pervasive of what’s going on in our society today. To me, that’s what’s so important about the film, from that perspective. But Wayne is right it is all encased in this unfolding narrative of this dramatic crime thriller, and Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker are really the Trojan horses, carrying the messaging to the world.
Wayne Barrow: That’s why I love Brad so much, Nicole, There are not many people that you come across that is honest about their understanding of the world. Not everybody wants to put themselves on the block and say, “You know what, I don’t know too much about black culture. But let me go ahead and exploit it. We get a lot of that. Brad is the exception of that. That is my guy, that’s my brother. Because he’s been honest from the start and pure.
And these conversations are important. And these conversations are definitely needed between our communities between our mindset. We all human, no matter how you slice it, we’re all human. We’re spiritual beings. So how we live our lives, of course, it’s going to be based on you know how we support ourselves in this space of humanity. And I just want to give kudos to him for being one of those standout individuals that puts race aside and just understands, not only his place in society but his place in the culture of Hip-Hop, which is made for everybody.
AllHipHop: I wanted to just build on that. The movie does not stray away from showing crookedness on both sides. There are black crooked cops, and there are white crooked cops. But it must have been difficult to create this dramatic character that doesn’t seem like a white Savior. So how as a creative did you balance that?
Brad Furman: I was supposed to meet Russ pool. I was two weeks away from meeting him, and I got the word he had passed. And so I never had the chance to really sit down with him. But I had spent a bunch of time with Megan Poole and the Poole family and got a chance through their lens. And also Randall Sullivan, who wrote “Labyrinth” was very, very close with Russ. So I had flown up to Portland. Perry Sanders was their attorney at the time on the Wallace civil case. So I was around all these people who knew Russ, and all I kept hearing about Russ was about his integrity. He was this man wrought with integrity. And that has nothing to do with race. That’s just about him as a human being, as Wayne said, and his integrity. And I wanted to exemplify and personify that.
And at the end of the day, I was birth, white and Jewish, I had no control over those things. You know, I actually claimed being Jewish, not because I was religious, but because I dealt with so much anti-semitism as a kid, and ironically, you know, who came to my back as a child? Al my black friends. All my black friends had my back, always. Why that is how that happened, I don’t always have the answers for those things. But in my personal experience, and channeling things through the real Russ Poole, it was about a man, a human being with integrity. And that was what I was trying to push forward in what I felt was important about the narrative.
The other thing, because I feel like especially with social media, and the internet, and the microscope, I felt that Biggie to me is more impactful than JFK. Because Biggie is my hero. Christopher spoke to me. I saw Tupac first time with the bandana and Rolling Stone. It was like a two-inch picture. I was like, “Who is that guy?” I was drawn to the imagery of that man. I was drawn to his poetry, I was drawn to the interviews where he was like, “why are we not housing people in the White House?” I was like, “who is this guy saying these things he’s, brilliant.” I was researching Afeni and the Black Panthers and his unique education that inspired him. And I was trying to read and get my hands on everything. And all of these things from these two individuals in particular, and so many others.
I became a filmmaker truthfully, just to give you an inclination, because of Spike Lee. When I watch “Do The Right Thing” and there’s the scene in the pizza shop, where he’s asking who his heroes are and he’s naming all these Black people. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s my life.” I was like Michael Jordan. Jodeci, I couldn’t stop playing, “Stay” and “Forever My Lady.” So for me, I felt that in understanding my point of view on the world, I understand the distinction between race but I would be dishonorable and dishonest if I wasn’t brutally honest about the impact that the culture and Black culture as a whole has shaped my whole foundation and everything that makes me the man that I am.
So thereby, too, I think, move forward and all of the collective decisions of this movie, I understood that this was treacherous ground, I understood that somebody said to me, “you don’t know the streets like this, people are gonna rise up against you.” I understood. I had friends in the LAPD and the sheriff’s office who called me and said, this goes to the top, don’t touch this. But it was all of those reasons that I felt like, that’s why I need to tell the story and take the risk.
AllHipHop: I really thought that you did a great job in balancing that throughout the film. It was actually interesting to see how you were able to unearth nuances, that if you aren’t familiar with certain cultures, you wouldn’t have you wouldn’t have picked up so hats off to you for that.
Brad Furman: I appreciate that. mean it just to be brutally frank about it, when you’re young, there’s like an impressionistic thing that happens to you. Honestly, I thought all my black friends were cooler than me, truthfully, I’m being real with you. The way they moved, the way they danced the way they were smoother than me.
As a young boy, those things were challenges for me, because I felt like I was unable to do things in the manner in the way that I felt they were. But ultimately, in my growth and maturity as an individual, and through the support of my family and hard work and my efforts and things I strove for, I became comfortable with myself. I learned to love me in the process.
And then when you become whole with yourself, like say, you’re striving to be a filmmaker, you’re not striving to be Spike Lee or Marty Scorsese. I just want to be Brad. And that that that took a long time to figure those things out. Wayne represented him, but when Tyrese Gibson, I have been tight for almost 20 years now, when I first met Rese, he said to me, “you’re my first and only white friend.” That came as a shock. Culturally, we were from different universes, but he couldn’t understand somebody like me talking to him about K-Ci and Jojo. He thought I was like an alien. He was totally confused by it. But we connected on these things.
When I’ve had my black friends say to me, that it is painful to have the culture like sort of pillaged and raped and used and you hear about it in the rap songs. Jay speaks about it, Kanye speaks about it. There’s a truth to that because people are profiteering off the genius and brilliance of Black culture. And that’s really full circle for me. What I was concerned with making the movie was, not only is this not about profiting, I don’t especially don’t want to profit off the murder of this man that inspired my life. So that was a unique thing that you have to traverse through. And again, that’s why I was like, I will not make the movie, under any circumstances, without the support of the Shakur estate.
So I made changes to the movie because the Shakur estate asked me after they previewed the movie, “we want to have this changed, we want to have this changed.” There was no requirement legally to do that. I did it because I felt deeply in my heart. Man, if I could sit with Pac, like if I could sit with BIG if I could sit and have a conversation with them. Those guys were my heroes.
If Pac left everything he had, to his estate, and to Tom Whalley, because he loved Tom and said, take care of everything whether you know, he knew that or not. And Tom wanted “x,” I was doing “x.” So this was my whole thing. The Poole family had to be on board, the Wallace estate had to be on board, the Shakur estate, everybody had to be on board, or else I just couldn’t go to bed at night. And that was just non-negotiable for me.