In late 1991 and early 1992, a young rapper/actor named Tupac Shakur broke through to the mainstream, thanks to the one-two punch of his debut solo album 2Pacalypse Now and his electrifying performance in Ernest Dickerson’s noir-inspired urban gangster flick Juice. It was part of a movement of films geared specifically to black audiences, dominated by the likes of New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood – in other words, studios were willing to finance and distribute those films, but only if they fell into the tight box of drug and crime narratives.
The remarkable box office performance of F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton two summers ago threatens a similar kind of stereotyping, in which the takeaway is not that moviegoers want to see films by and about people of color, but that they want to see hip-hop biopics (which, conveniently enough, capitalize on the existing properties and brands that make film financiers comfortable). And it gets even stickier when the result is something like All Eyez on Me, which apes the scope and narrative of Compton – and even features a few of the same figures – but is written and directed more like one of those unintentionally hilarious Lifetime popstar biopics.
That’s a shame, because Tupac Shakur lived a helluva life: the offspring of Black Panthers, he split his childhood between New York, California, and Baltimore (where he attended the Baltimore School for the Arts), broke into music as a member of the early-‘90s sensation Digital Underground, and spent the first half of the decade simultaneously beloved for his acting and rhyming skills, and notorious for his run-ins with the law and the shady characters of the industry (including the shadiest, Death Row Records kingpin Suge Knight). Caught up in the much-hyped war of words between East and West coast artists, he took five bullets in New York in 1994, only to die in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas two years later. He was 25.
All Eyez On Me uses, as its framing device, a 1995 prison interview, making much of Tupac’s story his own memory. What probably sounded like a good idea on the page makes the film play like a filmed outline – particularly in its early sections, which the two-plus hour picture sprints through as quickly as possible, providing only the scantest of information and no texture whatsoever. It’s a film chock full of thirty-second scenes that provide plot points and biographical bookmarks, and nothing more (Tupac meets Jada Pinkett, Tupac auditions for Digital Underground, Tupac checks his mom into rehab); the script is credited to three writers, but it plays like they just filmed his Wikipedia page.
The dialogue is laughably bad, trafficking in clichés (“This shit is killin’ our people”), church-play melodrama, and the worst kind of expositional dialogue. I can’t decide if the low point comes when Pac’s manager turns to him at the Juice premiere, while the film is playing, and announces, “That’s amazing, Pac. You’re on your way,” or if it’s his first meeting with Interscope’s execs, characters whose clueless whiteness is played with the subtlety of a vintage In Living Color sketch, noting that his music “makes us feel, and that’s what good music’s supposed to do,” and whose concerns about “Brenda’s Got a Baby” are eventually shrugged off thus: “Interscope was founded on artistic freedom!”
These scenes are staged clumsily by director Benny Boom, a music video vet whose previous film credits include the cartoonish Next Day Air and a straight-to-video S.W.A.T. sequel, and who pads the already inflated running time with cringe-worthy sex scenes, odd bursts of slow-mo, and long scenes of studio sessions that manage to show iconic songs forming, with little indication of the creative process behind them. For that matter, the film is plagued by an outright disinterest in the root or development of Shakur’s gift; there’s not a single scene of Pac finding his voice, developing his style, or even writing rhymes (aside from a brief moment scribbling in his notebook in bed, surrounded by the props of three nude groupies). Compton, for all of its flaws, at least conveyed some sense of how the members of N.W.A. channeled their anger at the world around them into their distinctive sound. As best as we can tell from All Eyez, Tupac was born a fully-formed writer and actor, and was just waiting for someone to put a microphone or camera in front of him.
To Boom’s credit, once it gets past the boilerplate background stuff, the second half of the film isn’t nearly as incompetent as the first. It’s just kind of dull. There are crowd-pleasing scenes, to be sure, thanks to faithful recreations (the music cues and costuming are on point) or well-placed needle drops; the music does a lot of the movie’s work, as it’s hard not to get worked up by, say, the intro of “California Love.” And the performers are good to great – particularly Demetrius Shipp Jr., who not only bears a downright eerie resemblance to Shakur, but is natural and convincing in his own right, even when saddled with the flattest of dialogue. His two-pronged performance calls to mind Jamal Woolard, who was similarly both evocative and effective in the Biggie biopic Notorious. Woolard turns up here in the same role, for an arc that gets as much mileage as possible out of that friendship and its splintering, descending into a blow-by-blow of the East/West rap wars – like every single blow, bogged down in forgotten details by the film’s conclusion.
Those closing passages also present a troubling spin on Shakur’s conviction for sexual assault, in which he’s painted as the victim of trumped-up accusations from a spurned former lover. This slant is upsetting on its own terms, and for all the usual reasons. But it also keys in on what may be the film’s biggest problem: its heavy-handed, unquestioning reverence for its subject. (“You’ve got this undying loyalty to help people,” his girlfriend informs him, on the night of his death.) Shakur’s duality is not only part of what makes him fascinating; it’s part of what makes him human. His flaws, and there were many, could make for a riveting, complicated, Raging Bull-style portrait. Instead, All Eyez On Me paints him as merely a victim, targeted for his power and truth-telling, taken advantage of by the real bad guys and framed by skanless hoes. Perhaps that’s how he’d want to be remembered. But the honesty and candor of his best songs indicates otherwise.
All Eyez On Me is out today.