All Eyez on Me unfortunately cannot come close to painting a compelling or worthy picture of Tupac
by Steve Pulaski
I recently relistened to Tupac Shakur's album All Eyez on Me, the first double-album in rap music history, on top of being the final album the artist released before he was murdered in September 1996, a murder that remains unsolved. What struck me, yet again, about listening to songs like "All About U," "Ambitionz az a Ridah," and "California Love" was Tupac's versatility; his ability to be conscious, snappy, and downright soulful all in the same song. His lyrics and flow were always of high quality, and yet you could infrequently hear the breaths he was taking between bars. He was authentic and he was uniquely himself.
But much like the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light in 2015, All Eyez on Me is not only a terribly disappointing biopic about hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, but a work that absolutely shortchanges the enigma and complexities of the genre's most recognizable name.
Like most mediocre biopics, the film opts for comprehensive chronology rather than allowing certain moments of the subject's life to lay the foundation and give rise to greater themes. All Eyez on Me had the potential to sit alongside George Tillman Jr.'s Notorious and F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton, two near-masterpieces of style and gripping drama revolving around hip-hop culture and those who pioneered it and died for it. Tupac Shakur is a figure that, despite being intimately and accurately captured in a slew of documentaries (Tupac: Resurrection among my personal favorite), never got a fictional film to really compliment the dramatic power behind his character.
To say All Eyez on Me utterly fails at doing that is an overstatement. To say it doesn't come close to being effective is accurate, and debatably worse.
Demetrius Shipp, Jr. plays Tupac and goes beyond just being a credible impersonator. He is mostly strong at handling Tupac's more flagrant, incendiary personality and his understated one. Growing up with his mother Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira, who commands every scene she's in), a member of the Black Panthers, Tupac and his siblings hopscotch from New York to Baltimore before finally setting up camp in California, leaving home right as his mother begins to develop an addiction to drugs.
Tupac's early days were marked by his initial involvement with Digital Underground before inking a deal with Ted Field and Interscope Records, two massive, career-shaping events that the film speeds right through. His early albums, such as 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z..., were quick to chart and break records to solidify hip-hop's credibility as a genre and as a movement, but we're lucky to hear thirty second snippets of the CD's most popular songs. Then there's Tupac's passionate slogan "Thug Life," which is simply defined as the acronym for which it stands - "The Hate U Give Little Infants F**** Everybody" - but isn't developed beyond that to truly give the man's personal definition for what or who a "thug" actually was.
Instead, the comprehensive nature that the trio of writers (Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian) force here does nothing but give audiences and die-hard Tupac fans something they can just barely connect with before we move on to another scene or event that feels stripped and edited down to the bone. A perfect example comes when Tupac initially meets the two driving forces behind Digital Underground. One of the men asks Tupac to freestyle to see what kind of skills the man has; about two bars into his freestyle, Shipp narrates what happens for us and we cut to Tupac celebrating being linked with Digital Underground and never hear any kind of narration like the one we just heard for the remainder of the film.
Also present is the framework of Tupac being interviewed for a cover-story while being incarcerated on rape charges, something that insufficiently structures the film from the start and never gains comfortable footing.
On top of just being jarring, this sort of commitment to efficiency in editing and scope undermines a lot of the complexities inherent not only to Tupac's legacy, but his character as a whole. Even more muddying is when the film tries to (understandably) inject larger, external forces that motivated Tupac, such as the unequal treatment blacks have at the hands of law enforcement as opposed to whites, mass-incarceration of blacks, and poverty and "welfare queens." If we can't expect a film to really get an adequate grip on its subject beyond the obvious and linear, how can we expect institutionalized racism to be handled meaningfully?
The answer is we can't, and that's the back-breaking straw for a film made with the evident mindset of cashing in on the massively successful, acclaimedStraight Outta Compton. Despite apparently costing north of $40 million to make, All Eyez on Me has the aesthetic that is somewhere between independent Christian film and a medium-budget Lifetime drama. Its presentation feels dull and artificial, especially when sets filled with terribly fake leather decor and red carpeting are populated with Dominic L. Santana playing Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight with a comic-book villain-like twist.
Other supporting players, like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, are written with not nearly as much gravity necessary to fill the shoes of those names, with Dr. Dremaybe saying two lines not counting his verse in the film's dramatization of recording the monstrous hit "California Love." Two of the only standout celebrity performances in the film belong to Jamal Woolard's performance of Biggie Smalls (reprised from Notorious) and Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett, one of Tupac's closest friends from his teenage years.
All Eyez on Me unfortunately cannot come close to painting a compelling or worthy picture of a man more complex than perhaps most screenwriters could adequately portray. It's a middling biopic with some serious flaws in pacing, editing, scope, and impact, all of which lacking and feeling like a tentpole offering ala Straight Outta Comptonrather than work worthy of the man whose story is being told. Perhaps it was a fluke with the writing all together. Perhaps this is time to recognize directors of music videos aren't always a good choice to make sprawling biopics.
Steve's Grade: D+