In the opening scene to Benny Boom’s Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me, we see the esteemed rapper tell a reporter, in prison, he wants his real story to be told – and the interviewer responds by assuring the hotheaded wordsmith he’ll do all he can. Effectively working as something of a mouthpiece for the director, or a disclaimer even, sadly it’s not a promise kept – as we struggle to get beyond the facade of the infamous performer.
It’s a shame this be the case, for Tupac was a unique hip hop artist, who put everything on the line. Take Do For Love – he strips himself of that distinctive masculinity, and loses his dignity – it’s a song about being so deep in love he’s willing to forgive his partner for any wrongdoing. This was the sort of person Tupac was, and the person we rarely have the chance to encounter in this underwhelming production.
We begin at the very beginning, even surpassing the cradle-to-the-grave structure by first meeting the subject before he’s even born, as a pregnant Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira) campaigns tirelessly for black rights. Little does she know, she was soon to give birth to one of the most important voices of his generation, an activist, rapper and poet – Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.). The creatively inclined teenager was at first distraught to moving to the West coast – leaving behind his closest friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), but it’s there his career blossomed, as his indelible performance style and raw lyrical prowess led to a record deal – and eventually, superstardom.
But to be powerful and black in America can make you a target, as the government and law enforcement fear ambition. As a result Tupac had several appearances in court, and a lengthy prison sentence – and yet it was his tumultuous relationship with fellow artist Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) which ultimately led to the introduction of the mafia-style record label owner Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), which sent Tupac on a downward spiral which culminated in his tragic death in 1996.
This decision to cover so much ground has backfired tremendously on this project. Feeling like a Wikipedia biopic, it seems Boom had the task of box ticking, ensuring each significant moment in the subject’s life has been covered – and there were many, despite how young he was when he was murdered. To cram everything in means the scenes are so short, and almost obliged to be dramatic. We have no time to stop and reflect, to display any subtlety, any of the more intimate moments that don’t necessarily have an impact on the narrative as such, but allow for us to emotionally invest in our protagonist. If you take Selma, for example, some of the most engaging scenes weren’t when Martin Luther King was delivering a powerful speech, but when he was at home, just speaking candidly to his wife, as Ava DuVernay thrived in the notion of monotony – and it’s here you get more of a flavour for the character at the centre of the story.
Perhaps this biopic would have been improved had the filmmaker opted to focus in on a strand of Tupac’s life. Pick a certain relationship, be it with his mother, or with Biggie, and use that to build upon, to be emblematic of everything he stood for without the need to show us every move he makes. When you don’t cover any one topic substantially enough, nothing feels significant. It also disallows the chance for character development – so when Tupac goes from being an opportunist rapper to being one of the most famous musicians on the planet, we don’t get a sense for that rise, nor how it had an impact on his personality.
Boom can also be accused of being a little one-sided in his depiction of his subject. We do confront Tupac’s contradictions – how he used to speak so fervently about how he values women, and yet call them bitches, or how he preached peace on the streets – and got ‘Thug Life’ tattooed on his stomach. Through conversation we do allow the rapper to respond to such allegations, but his flaws – of which there were many – are not studied quite enough, and to humanise the rapper we need to thrive in his imperfections. Instead, no matter what trouble he got himself into, we tend to always take his side – he’s always blameless.
The lead performance by Shipp Jr. is an impressive one however, easing any initial apprehensions that derived from just how similar a resemblance he has to the musician, fearing he may have only been cast for this reason, and not for his acting credentials. But while the more weightier scenes are a little beyond him, he captures the essence and mannerisms of Tupac to a tee. As a result, this allows for the reconstructions of the music videos to work well, transpiring in some of the film’s best moments.
The cast, however, have been let down by the melodramatic approach taken by Boom. There’s one scene in particular, where Tupac has a sexual encounter in a nightclub, which feels like a deleted scene from the sort of movie you’d accidentally stumble upon late at night on Channel 5 – the sort your parents would rather you didn’t see. Perhaps British audiences will have more of a problem with this approach for we’re generally more cynical than our American counterparts, as the production value of this picture is at times akin to the 90s music videos Tupac originally starred in. Part of the charm, perhaps, but hardly a compliment.
On a more positive note, through Tupac’s activism, it allows for the feature to explore pertinent themes concerning African American identity without contrivance; themes that feel all too relevant today, as we studiously linger over the notion that America is a nation that has a real problem with black ambition and dominance. This enriches an already remarkable narrative, as the story is undoubtedly fascinating and multi-layered (hence why Steve McQueen is now making a documentary on Tupac).
But to have an incredible story, and a superb soundtrack to boot, does not automatically give the film a free pass, as those two things were already in place. It’s more about how you tell the story – and it’s here the film suffers. A Tupac biopic is definitely a film we’ve needed and craved, but sadly, this is not quite what we had been after.
All Eyez on Me is released on June 30th.