Tupac Shakur is long overdue for a movie about his life – and with the recent critical and financial success of Straight Outta Compton, another biopic about hip hop legends, it would seem that a film about the controversial and rap icon would be a no brainer. Unfortunately, All Eyez on Me bears more similarity to Notorious, the Biggie biopic misfire, and comes across as a superficial, Wikipedia summary of Shakur’s life, rather than the deep dive into his upbringing and career that he deserves.
To be fair, the film’s earliest passages are the best. These involve Shakur’s boyhood in the Bronx, Baltimore and, eventually, Oakland, where he moved with his sister after his mother became hooked on drugs. Earlier, Afeni Shakur (played here with aplomb by Danai Gurira) had been a Black Panther and outspoken revolutionary who challenged the U.S. legal system and her advocacy could be among the things that sparked outspokenness in her son.
As he grows up, Shakur is played by Demetrius Shipp Jr., who – despite being forced to contend with a script that prefers speechifying and melodrama over characterization – does a pretty decent job of capturing the rapper – in his anger, occasionally surprising tenderness and swagger.
One of the film’s greatest faults is using an interview Tupac gave in jail to a journalist as a framing device throughout the picture. In the hands of a stronger filmmaker, this type of device could work, but director Benny Boom mostly uses it as a means to allow Shakur to provide running commentary on things that we already knew about him.
Even more poorly thought out is a sequence during which Tupac dances at a club with a young woman who later accused him of rape – this film charges that several of his entourage were involved in the assault while he slept in the next room. The most unfortunate element of the sequence is that Tupac dances with the woman to R. Kelly’s “Seems Like You’re Ready.” Regardless of the truth of the situation, I’d imagine the filmmakers could have found a better song to accompany the scene.
Also, one of the most fascinating elements of Tupac that goes unexplored is his contradictory persona. As a young student, he was fascinated by Shakespeare and studied ballet, poetry, jazz and acting. His lyrics displayed a thoughtfulness and political consciousness that many of his peers attempted to plagiarize. In one song, he might brag about rendezvous with loose women, while in the next tell single mothers to keep their heads up or praise his mother – as in the heartfelt “Dear Mama” – for her struggles and even admit that he was wrong for how he had previously perceived her. In All Eyez on Me, Tupac is merely reduced to an impersonation.
The element that made Straight Outta Compton so invigorating was not only its chronicle of N.W.A., a highly controversial hip hop group that gave birth to the careers of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, but how their rise came at a time when race relations appeared ready to explode (Rodney King, the L.A. riots and, shortly thereafter, the OJ Simpson trial). Their story was set against that backdrop, making the film not only the best hip hop biopic to date, but also the best music biopic (in my opinion) since Todd Haynes’ adventurous I’m Not There.
But All Eyez on Me is merely content on focusing on the drama – especially that which takes place at Death Row Records under the watchful eyes of Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, oozing menace), who runs the business like a gangster. Other such figures – Dr. Dre, for instance – get brief walk-on parts, while the guy who plays Snoop Dogg merely does a great job of imitating his voice. Even the devastating feud between Tupac and Biggie seems like an after thought.
In other words, Tupac Shakur deserves a better biopic than this one. It’s not a bad film – and has some decent moments, especially between Tupac and his mother – but a missed opportunity. Shakur is among the most fascinating hip hop icons and his story is so multi-faceted that it would appear difficult to capture his entire essence in one movie. My hope is that someone else tries and has better luck.