“Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.,” the ten episode limited series that premiered on USA February 27, may seem like the latest in a never-ending cycle of Biggie and/or Tupac-themed productions but its executive producer and often director Anthony Hemingway promises that this one is different.
During press rounds at the sixth annual aTVfest presented by the Savanah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Atlanta in early February, Hemingway insisted that “Our approach and what we have done hasn’t been done before. We really took the time and had the landscape within ten hours to really humanize these two young men in a way that we haven’t seen before. I think we’re so normally used to and have been exhausted by the negative stories or connections and associations with them and that’s what I think has been the face of them.”
Hemingway has a great track record for producing quality television. He most notably began his television directing career on the iconic HBO series “The Wire” and helmed “Red Tails,” the big screen film on the Tuskegee Airmen, in 2012. Most recently, Hemingway served as co-executive producer of the groundbreaking 2016 FX limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson” from the network’s “American Crime Story” anthology and the trailblazing slavery-era WGN America series “Underground.”
With “Unsolved,” Hemingway helps spearhead a series that is very much a crime procedural but with a hip-hop-twist in its focus on the rappers Notorious B.I.G. a.k.a. Biggie as well as his birth name Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur. The two rappers, who were once friends, began feuding prior to their respective deaths just months apart on September 13, 1996 in Las Vegas for Shakur and March 9, 1997 in Los Angeles for Wallace. Both of their murders have remained unsolved for over 20 years and the USA series attempts to show why and possibly even do the impossible and actually solve the two intertwined cases.
“Unsolved” is dense. It jumps from the early 1990s to the first LAPD investigation of Biggie’s murder in 1997 and to the follow-up investigation in 2006. Most of the series centers on the cops and not Biggie and Tupac. When they do show up, however, they are portrayed by Marcc Rose, who may be recognizable for his brief role as Tupac in “Straight Outta Compton,” and newcomer Wavyy Jonez, who is actually a rapper from New York. Speaking from a panel following the first public screening of the series’ first episode at the aTVfest, whose audience was largely SCAD students, Jonez shared that the key was getting into the core of Biggie as a person.
“For me, it was going back and really just learning who Christopher was. We know about the Notorious B.I.G., one of the nicest to ever do it. We all know that. But to go back and really see that they were friends and to see that, come on, they were playing with guns in the end [of the first episode which Hemingway insisted is a true story]. It was different things that we didn’t know” shared Jonez. To truly channel him, Jonez said he had to be “that Biggie Smalls, explaining “I got to put myself in his mind and see where he was at.”
Where he was at was extremely confused it appears. At least that’s what “Unsolved” shows. Tupac is an interesting characterization as well. But channeling the “All Eyez on Me” rapper wasn’t as hard for Rose. Not only had he played him before but there is also ample footage on him.
“Fortunately for us Pac is just a huge icon so the footage online was just crazy,” Rose said. “So for me I started with just searching online. After that, I started reading the books he read, “How to Be a General,” “The Art of War by Sun Tzu.” In addition Mopreme Shakur, Tupac’s stepbrother, was also on hand to guide Rose.
Greg Kading, the lead detective on the 2006 investigation into the murders played by Josh Duhamel, one-time husband to Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie with whom he shares a child, was also on set. Kading’s own 2011 book, “Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder,” and the 2015 book-based documentary, “Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders,” serve as major source material.
Bokeem Woodbine, who plays the lead black detective and Kading’s friend, Daryn Dupree, on the 2006 investigation, had a stronger foundation. Woodbine even co-starred with Tupac in his epic music video “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” in which the rapper dies. “The approach that we took as a whole, as a unit, as a team, was to bring some excitement back into the genre of storytelling that deals with real factual occurrences,” chimed in Woodbine. “I think to an extent contemporary culture’s been stagnated by a proliferation of social media and reality television and this, that and the other and sometimes you have to go back to go forward and this was a time that was very energized.”
So, even if the murders aren’t sufficiently solved by the tenth and final episode, the “Unsolved” audience should still leave with something.
“Unsolved” airs at 10 pm ET on USA
Penned By Ronda Racha Penrice