Tupac Shakur is one of the undisputed giants of rap history. The New York-born rapper rose to prominence during the 1990s on the strength of songs like ‘Brenda’s Got A Baby’, ‘Keep Ya Head Up’, and ‘Dear Mama’, before being fatally shot in September 1996 at the age of just 24 (a murder that still remains unsolved). And now biopic All Eyez On Me, directed by Benny Boom and released on Blu-Ray and DVD this week, seeks to tell that story.
Tupac the artist embodied a mass of contradictions: trained in Shakespeare and ballet, he was also a ‘Thug Life’-tattoo-sporting ex-con, having been arrested and imprisoned multiple times throughout his career. He was an artist who engaged in well-publicised ‘beef’ with other rappers while also crafting heartfelt hip hop about racism and the violence of the inner city, and was considered by many to be a poet laureate for gangland America.
This is a lot of baggage for any biopic to unpack, to say nothing of Shakur’s personal relationships, his part in the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry, and his journey as an individual artist. Tupac’s story is still greatly personal to a great many people.
And yet, it is precisely this that All Eyez On Me attempts to do, in a sweeping biographical drama that takes in the whole of the rapper’s complex 24 years. Though the film ultimately falls just short of the cinematic mastery that a life like Tupac’s demands and deserves, it offers a useful and enjoyable introduction for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of his legacy, and hopefully opens the door for a variety of future portrayals – let’s discuss…
The film takes as its framing device an interview that Tupac gave from Clinton Correctional Facility in 1995, when he was serving time for the sexual assault of a woman in his hotel room with his entourage. The interview serves to contextualise the other events of Tupac’s life, beginning with his mother, Afeni Shakur’s release from prison with her fellow Black Panthers when she was still pregnant with Tupac, and his childhood teachings about black pride. It then proceeds to follow an older Tupac, played by Demetrius Shipp Jr. (undoubtedly a dead ringer for the late rapper) to Baltimore School for the Arts, where he becomes close with a young Jada Pinkett (played by Kat Graham), through to his time with Digital Underground, his solo albums, all the way to his tenure at Death Row Records under the eye of gangster/producer Suge Knight. The film closes with the events that took place on the night of Tupac’s death, chillingly broken up by flashbulb-like moments of pause where the audience is forced to anticipate the tragedy of what we know is coming.
One aspect of the film that has captivated the media since the film’s release is its portrayal of the relationship between Shakur and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Though the performances of both actors is admirable – and indeed, Shipp Jr.’s portrayal couples with his uncanny physical resemblance to make for very absorbing viewing – the few scenes that do occur between them have come under fire from Pinkett-Smith herself who has said they paint a false picture of her relationship with Tupac. She has said that almost none of the scenes that feature her in the film actually took place, and that the light in which they show their relationship is deeply hurtful.
Dubious veracity aside (although that has been an accusation levelled at the film on multiple occasions), the scenes, though well-acted, never quite blossom into a meaningful arc for either character, and in so doing demonstrate much of the issue with the film as a whole.
When approaching a life as expansive and complicated as the life of Tupac Shakur, particularly as part of a biographical project that has had so many false starts and setbacks in its mission to break the cinematic silence surrounding him, it is immensely difficult to cut anything. Tupac lived an incredibly rich life, but All Eyez On Me attempts to incorporate every detail of that richness in a way that not only means it is trying to tell a hundred different stories at once, but that those stories don’t get the depth of treatment they deserve. The movie seems to move through events – Tupac’s time with Digital Underground, his solo career, his attacks and stints in prison, even the night of his death – with an almost encyclopaedic efficiency, rarely allowing any one thread enough consideration to strengthen into a theme with real emotional weight.
However, this is perhaps less a fault of the filmmakers than of the immense weight of expectation that lies upon a film like this, particularly as the first full-length biopic of the iconic star. This film has been in the works for a long time, and as many of the people involved in Tupac’s story are not only still alive but many actually worked on the film, there was always going to be confusion, inside the film and out, as to what story it was trying to tell, and how it was best to tell it.
None of this is to say that the film does not accomplish anything valuable. One of the threads that does hold great emotional resonance throughout is Tupac’s relationship with his mother, given a heartfelt portrayal by Danai Gurira. Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s performance has been fairly applauded for its sensitivity to the different faces of the star, and the scope of the film – though it comes at the cost of some emotional depth – does well in demonstrating the violence and the complexity that coloured Tupac’s world.
Ultimately, what emerges is a valuable introduction to the Tupac legacy. All Eyez On Me is a useful jumping-off point not only for hip hop novices hoping to learn about one of music’s most legendary figures but also, I hope, for future cinematic treatments of Tupac’s life. The conversation has started: people have said what they loved and what they hated. Now it is time for that discussion to be turned into art, and art that approaches Shakur’s life with a semblance of the artistic vision that made the star himself so enduringly beloved.
Watch the trailer for All Eyez On Me below.