All Eyez on Me (2017)
The untold story of Tupac Shakur
It’s understandable if, on gut reaction, it feels as though it’s high time for hip-hop biopics, chiefly in the wake of the blitzing hit that was Straight Outta Compton (2015). To be fair, this Tupac biography has been in development since 2011, with the inspired choice of Antoine Fuqua, The Magnificent Seven (2016), initially set to direct. With the golden era of hip-hop well and truly passed and many of its superstars having gone quiet, their old rivalries forgotten, now feels like the ideal time to go back to the beginnings of the genre to both celebrate and probe into what was.
Based on the short but prolific life of legendary gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur (played here by Cairo Moor as a youngster, then Demetrius Shipp Jr. as an adult), All Eyez on Me takes us from Pac’s childhood in the ’70s, living under the direct influence of the Black Panther movement with his passionate activist mother, Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), right up to his fatal shooting in the presence of infamous Death Row Records producer Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) in 1996, the singer-songwriter then barely 25-years old.
In between this, we see his long-standing friendships with people such as a pre-fame Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) — whom Shakur met during his drama studies where he first began to find his presence on stage — his rivalries, namely with East Coast rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard), and his seemingly never-ending string of controversies and stints in jail.
It’s pretty amazing to think that while Pac was, and still is, one of the most revered hip-hop figures of his generation, this is the first time his story has been portrayed in a dramatized form. Sure, we’ve seen him in cameos, including one in the aforementioned Straight Outta Compton, along with a swag of docos, most famously Biggie & Tupac (2002) and Tupac: Resurrection (2003), but not one attempt to render his story on the dramatic screen.
I wonder if part of this reason is the admiration with which fans and even casual hip-hop listeners continue to uphold the rapper — to even approach exposing 2Pac’s tumultuous character beyond the familiar persona would outrage an entire community so passionate about their idol. At one point, attached to the project was respected urban director John Singleton, who had worked with Shakur in 1993 on Poetic Justice, but he eventually exited, citing ye olde creative differences and a lack of respect for his deceased comrade. In light of a recent interview with the final director Benny Boom, Next Day Air (2009), it seems as though Singleton had a few ideas that could’ve been interpreted as being ‘disrespectful.’
Why bring all of this up? Well, because the resulting film is often pure surface level stuff — All Eyez on Me never challenging the public image that Pac reveled in, especially in the era following his pact with the devil in ‘Big Suge’ Knight. For a movie that claims to be the ‘untold story,’ there’s a lot that simply feels like it’s been nabbed off the headlines and, outside of perhaps the childhood section, the flick doesn’t allow us to understand Shakur’s mindset any better. The central challenge in crafting a story of an icon such as this is finding a balance between respecting the beloved aspects of the character, while exposing the rarely seen undercurrents, as ugly as they may be. Outside of celebrating a figure, why else would anyone wish to watch a biopic, if not to learn something new about the subject?
In dealing with 2Pac Shakur, the film does (at least) recognize he had contradictory aspects — for one, dealing out misogynistic lyrics, while apparently holding ‘nuttin’ but love’ for the ladies — nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that Boom’s feature is always erring towards the more positive portrayal, because God forbid an entire legion of fans even begin to challenge the idea that ‘the invincible’ Pac had his flaws. The amusing but fatal ‘war’ of the East Coast vs West was always a silly rivalry — think of it as two groups of men-children saying they’re better than one other — yet All Eyez on Me seems to revel in it like it was a worthwhile clash, utilizing Jada ‘the voice of reason’ Pinkett to slap some sense into the situation via an otherwise throwaway moment. It’s this lack of interrogation that will assumably propel the film to become a respectable box office earner, with swarms of old school rap fans nodding their heads to nostalgia.
The script, by a trio of writers in Jeremy Haft and Eddie Gonzalez, Street Kings 2: Motor City (2011), and Steven Bagatourian, American Gun (2005), is more in tune with Notorious (2009), which was about the equally iconic Biggie Smalls (intriguingly enough with the same actor reprising his role here), a film that was entertaining but not terribly insightful. To wit, playing it safe. Compare these two flicks with the bold and authentic Straight Outta Compton — great for fans, worthwhile for general moviegoers, an excellent film period.
As you might’ve already guessed, hearing iconic rap tunes from the’90s pump through the speakers of a modern cinema is a real head-boppin’ treat, even if the score by John Paesano, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015), feels, at times, terribly overdone and distracting — the sort of stuff reserved for earnest spiritual dramas.
On the directing front, I believe Benny Boom has done a pretty good job with the material he’s been dealt — it’s clear that everyone is genuinely having a ball with the larger than life aspects of Shakur’s career ‘cause all he wants to do, to quote The Notorious B.I.G., is ‘party and bullshit.’ It’s also because of this interest in the more hardcore latter half of Pac’s life that the first act feels a smidgen haphazard and rushed, with bits going in and out, interjected with a sometimes awkward framing device of an interview in jail. Thankfully, the movie eventually settles in for a pretty solid mid-section before, once again, rushing out to a finish. While the epilogue text tells viewers that 2Pac was still alive for six days after the drive-by attack, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to dramatize (and comment on) those days and the rippling effect this had in the community — it was huge news, after all.
Easily one of the biggest aces up the production’s sleeve is the uncanny resemblance that leading actor Demetrius Shipp Jr. has to the West Coast rap star he portrays — this alone is bound to take Pac fans up to heaven. Shipp Jr. is certainly passionate about what he’s doing — dancing and smiling effortlessly — yet it’s in his vocal work that he falters, though it’s not enough to sink the overall impression. Shipp Jr. won’t get an Oscar, but he’ll get an endless amount of accolades from rap fans for his sheer commitment.
On the support, Danai Gurira, Mother of George (2013), who plays Afeni Shakur, is a knockout, the 39-year old actress going through the ringer of dramatic requirements — social activist, drug addict, hard-as-steel mumma and a solid shore up for her talented son — Gurira rendering it all with aplomb. Kat Graham’s portrayal of Jada Pinkett (who’s recently panned the film on her twitter page) is warm and welcome, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Jamal Woolard reprise his portrayal of Biggie Smalls — just like in Notorious, he still fits the role like a glove. There are, of course, other hip-hop cameos including Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis), Dr. Dre (Harold House Moore) and Faith Evans (Grace Gibson), but outside of a name-drop, these guys aren’t terribly memorable.
Look, in short, for 2Pac fans, All Eyez on Me is an absolute must, the flick set to (no doubt) reinvigorate their love and reverence for their fallen hero. For everyone else, it’s about as entertaining as you’re willing to let it be — don’t look for anything terribly insightful and just go with the flow.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
All Eyez on Me is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia