Film Review: All Eyez On Me

Oft-delayed Tupac biopic renders a fascinating life in broad strokes.
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Even those who are not fans of his music cannot deny Tupac Shakur lived a fascinating life. In fact, there was so much he accomplished, experienced, committed or was party to, his story, like that of so many greats whose eventful careers would appear on paper to be the stuff of cinematic gold, poses a sincere editing challenge to any filmmaker who endeavors to tell it. Unfortunately, first-time feature-film director Benny Boom and his trio of writers (Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian) do not rise to the occasion. In trying to reference as many important moments in Tupac’s life as they can, they give themselves little time to explore any one thread in any great depth, to say nothing of plumbing the character of the artist himself. At its best, All Eyez on Me is blithely superficial but straightforward storytelling. At its worst, it’s melodrama.

The nearly two-and-a-half-hour film recounts the story of Tupac’s life from the Cradle to the Grave. It tracks his early years, from an impoverished childhood in New York and Baltimore, to California, where his rapping career takes off in the early ’90s. The first part of the film includes a narrative frame, as an incarcerated Tupac tells his story in a series of interviews to a reporter. But once the autobiographical narrative he’s recounting catches up with the present action, the reporter, and the frame, disappear. Tupac is released from prison—where he was sent following a conviction for sexual assault he vehemently denied—thanks to the influence of the sinister CEO of Death Row Records, Suge Knight (Dominic Santana). Tupac joins with Death Row, records a wildly successful double album, falls in love with the daughter of Quincy Jones, Kidada (in real life, the older sister of actress Rashida) and intensifies his beef with fellow rapper and former-friend-turned-rival Biggie Smalls. The film ends with the drive-by shooting that killed Tupac, a crime which remains unsolved to this day, though no shortage of conspiracy theories abound.

Newcomer Demetrius Shipp, Jr. bears an uncanny resemblance to Tupac—it’s the long eyelashes. He speaks with the artist’s cadences and does what he can with the script. Santana also convinces with the stature and menacing affect of Knight, though it’s brand-newcomer Jarrett Ellis as a young Snoop Dogg who steals the show every time he opens his mouth to give a wonderfully spot-on impression of the rapper. He’s not playing for laughs, but you can’t help but grin each time he nails that laconic and iconic voice.

The film tries hard to draw parallels between Tupac’s life and the problems of today. Early in the movie, young Tupac passes two cops beating up a black man who speaks the words of Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.” This impulse to connect past with present and demonstrate the artist’s enduring relevance is smart and laudable, but to go about this task with didacticism and heavy clichés that strip the people you’re purporting to portray of the dynamism that made them worthy of portrayal to begin with is to greatly undercut noble intentions. There will surely be fans who respond to this broad approach, but it’s too bad when one considers that a dramatization of Tupac wrestling with his contradictions—that is, a portrayal of a man who could, without hypocrisy, venerate and objectify women; critique social ills while engaging in the sort of violence connected with the tragic results he decried, and tattoo himself with the swaggering phrase “THUG LIFE” as an acronymic gesture of social awareness (“The Hate You Give Little Infants F**** Everyone”)—could have made the same point about injustice in a richer manner. To be fair, at times the film does talk about the complexities of this man who was eminently human and bared it. But its few moments of doubt or personal reckoning are treated rotely and then quickly passed over. The film is concerned with the headline events in Tupac’s life, not in exploring the man who lived them.

All Eyez on Me was fraught with production woes and cycled through three directors before landing in the hands of Boom. Maybe John Singleton, who had earlier hoped to direct the project, could have made it something more than or different from a chronology of Tupac’s life. Maybe the upcoming documentary from Steve McQueen will do so. Because even those who are not fans of his music will have to admit that Tupac deserves better.

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