A hip-hop gamechanger, a revolutionary’s son, an actor, an ex-convict, a platinum-selling artist, a sensitive truth-teller, a “Thug Life” tattoo-sporting tough guy, a black man, a martyr – Tupac Shakur was all these things and more. It was never a matter of whether or not the 25-year-old musician deserved a biopic so much as why it took so damned long to make it happen. (Would that it were so simple: You can read a detailed history of the project’s long, winding and incredibly bumpy road to becoming a reality.) There was just one anxiety-inducing question that kept buzzing in the back of our skulls: Was this eventual big-screen take on Shakur going to be an epic look at a complicated legend’s life and times – a Gandhi of gangsta rap iconography – or merely a slightly larger Lifetime TV movie filled with hysterics and greatest-hits moments. We now have an answer. It was not the one we wanted.
Less a biopic than a pop-up Wikipedia page, All Eyez on Me covers the bases of Shakur’s story: the early schooling in Shakespeare and militant sloganeering, the formative mistrust of authority, his big break with the Digital Underground, the discovery of his voice, the near-derailment due to his shooting and scandals and incarceration, and the self-destructive free-for-all of the Death Row years. As a bonus, you also get characters who exist solely to spout exposition and/or infomercial taglines (“Well, Interscope was founded as a haven for artistic expression!”) and the sort of clunky, nuance-free filmmaking that keeps pushing the Camp-o-meter into the red. What’s M.I.A. is a real sense of what made Shakur so vital – then and now – or any idea why we superfans and stans still rightfully look at his work as a hip-hop high point. You want the movie equivalent of “Hit ‘Em Up.” You get something that would’ve been deemed unfit for Loyal to the Game.
Don’t blame Demetrius Shipp Jr., the newcomer who nabbed the Tupac role. Never mind that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Shakur; what’s impressive is how he manages to nail the rap star’s rage and swagger, the street smarts and the crazy-sexy-cool vibe. Even when director Benny Boom and a trio of screenwriters keep weighing him down with dramatic dead weight, Shipp keeps his head up. He does his best to convince you that this was a man who was deeply conflicted about whether to start a movement or just keep sipping the Moët. If he doesn’t quite have the star power that the real Tupac did, the actor does have screen presence to spare.
And when the movie briefly allows Shipp to get onstage and drop a few verses, you wish it hadn’t skimped on the actual musical aspects in favor of half-baked attempts at pathos involving Shakur’s mother Afeni (The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira.) Or having a didactic journalist (Hill Harper) play devil’s advocate with an imprisoned Shakur over everything from rap lyrics to responsibility, social consciousness to C. Dolores Tucker’s tsk-tsking. Or questionably staging an encounter with Ayanna Jackson, who’d accuse the musician of sexual assault, like a slo-mo R&B video. By the time Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) enters stage right and we start slouching towards tragedy, All Eyez on Me already feels like it’s been looking at its subject with one eye closed.
Which, for those of us who’ve been waiting for this for a long time, is a major letdown. Tupac rapped about shooting his enemies and sleeping with their wives; he also sang that “even as a crack fiend, Mama/you always was a black queen, Mama.” Any attempt at contextualizing why or how that mix of in-your-face
aggression and sensitive hood journalism came from the same place gets buried under sloppy
sentimentality and soap operatics. This is a movie that’s content to superficially scroll through hits and misses and headlines without diving deeper. It’s biopic-making by numbers, and for anyone happy enough to simply see Shakur get the sinner-saint screen treatment, maybe that’s enough. As for the people banking on Tupac getting his own Straight Outta Compton-level movie, well – we ain’t mad at cha, All Eyez on Me. Just majorly disappointed.