In ‘All Eyez on Me,’ hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur’s life is used to explore broad themes of the African-American experience. Outstanding cinematography and a great soundtrack are not matched by story in this “cradle to grave” biopic.
The biopic All Eyez on Me is named for an album by hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur (1971-1996). It was the last to be released during his lifetime. The film, directed by Benny Boom, attempts to make sense of Tupac’s life, as all biography should, but it does so at the expense of its subject. Tupac represents the African-American experience in the movie, and while that may be true of the artist’s brief existence, it was Tupac’s sublime articulation of that experience, the rhymes, the voice, the anger, outrage and vulnerability, the struggle to be a black man in America and to speak for his people, that made him a hip-hop icon. Twenty-one years after his death, Tupac’s music and his very public quest for identity and meaning, still resonate with young people of every color, and inspire artists all over the world.
Music fans will appreciate All Eyez on Me’s great soundtrack, and its terrific staging of the concert scenes, especially the reenactment of the last of Tupac’s recorded performances at the House of Blues in 1996. Boom’s direction of these sequences and his choice of music for the soundtrack, attest to his knowledge of hip-hop, and his long experience in directing music videos. The film also benefits from cinematography by Peter Menzies, Jr. (Clash of the Titans, 2010), Derek Hill’s (The Magnificent Seven, 2016) thoughtful production design, and an excellent re-recording mix (re-recording mixers do the final sound mix) by Laura Wiest (Dope, 2015), one of the few women working in this capacity on major films.
While a good production provides audiences, especially ones unfamiliar with hip-hop, glimpses of the art form and its significance to America’s musical legacy, it does not compensate for All Eyez on Me’s hackneyed screenplay, with its confusing narrative and utter lack of character development. Tupac’s existence is laid bare in his art, and there is not enough of it in the film, nor do we understand in the end, as we should in a creative person’s biography, the origins of Tupac’s talent beyond his mom’s Christmas present of a marble notebook in an opening sequence. Afeni Shakur (1947-2016) appears early on, and while the film chronicles her influence on her son, Danai Gurira’s performance is labored.
The birth to grave biopic claims to recount the untold story of Tupac Shakur (born June 16th, 1971, as Lesane Parish Cooks) whose moniker is derived from Túpac Amaru II, an 18th century Peruvian/Queche revolutionary. All Eyez on Me begins by eliding facts that might harm Tupac’s legacy and, more importantly for the screenwriters, that fit him into the theme of “black man as victim of society.” The truth of that sentiment is indisputable, but shouting it each time plays to the rafters and, ironically, dehumanizes Tupac because it erases his singularity.
Among the facts not mentioned in the film are that Tupac already had a criminal record when a bullet from his gun accidently killed a six-year-old boy during his scuffle with rivals. Tupac’s private monetary settlement stopped the ensuing lawsuit. Lurid reenactments also excuse the crime that put him in jail for eight months beginning in 1995. Attempts to rewrite such stories simplify and, at times, obliterate, the violence that shaped Tupac’s life and art, which in addition to his music, included a book of poetry, The Rose that Grew From Concrete, and three major film roles in Juice (1992), Poetic Justice (1993) and Gang Related (1997).
The movie frames its hero, who died at the age of 25, as a victim and a martyr, rather than a man. At times, Demetrius Shipp, Jr.’s heartfelt, debut performance as Tupac anchors us in the artist’s emotions, but only those who already know the Harlem-born rapper’s work and life will be able to follow the narrative in All Eyez on Me. It begins with, of all things, a shot of a prison transport bus. That opening image and what follows underpins another major theme in the movie, namely the well-documented and longstanding institutionalized racism in law enforcement and in the U.S. judicial system.
That racism notwithstanding, Tupac’s imprisonment was the result of a first degree sexual abuse conviction in New York City in 1994. He was in his hotel room during a brutal crime committed against a woman with whom he had previously had consensual sex. The movie has Tupac asleep in the bedroom. In real life, although not in the movie, Tupac told journalist Kevin Powell (Hill Harper), whose Vibe interviews awkwardly frame much of the film’s narrative, that he was responsible for the crime because he did nothing to stop it. In the movie, he cries from inside a police car: “Do I look guilty?” Consistently depicting Tupac’s actions through aspects of the black male experience of subjugation and emasculation, actually distances him from the audience, to say nothing of allowing the screenwriters to skip character development.
The rapper’s dicey alliances that may have led to the 1994 attack on him at Quad Studios in Manhattan, in 1994, are somewhat sanitized in All Eyez on Me. While the contract with Suge Knight and Death Row Records is depicted in the film, Tupac’s subsequent return to gangsta rap as well as musical “dissing” of former friends, both of which may have contributed to his horrific death in Las Vegas, is somewhat muted in the movie. In the end, All Eyez on Me simplifies Tupac’s grappling with the contradictions of gangsta rap misogyny, and the tender emotions he expresses for Afeni in “Dear Mama,” and for single mothers in “Keep Your Head Up.” These contradictions and Tupac’s riveting inner struggle, writ large in his music, is a major part of his artistic legacy. The biographer’s backward glance at Tupac needs to vividly portray it, not conceptualize it as The Struggle of All Black Men. That negates the life. As all fans know, Tupac lives.