Our expectations of hip-hop biopics may have been elevated by Straight Outta Compton, but they come back down to earth with a heavy thump in All Eyez on Me, a ploddingly pedestrian dramatization of Tupac Shakur’s brief, tumultuous life. Since his untimely death at 25 following a dramatic drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996, the rap superstar has been posthumously canonized as a kind of global underclass icon in the Bob Marley mold. Benny Boom’s film adds to this culture of reverence, but in the process it sanitizes and simplifies a complex American idol, ultimately doing a disservice to the man and his fans.
Launching in U.S. theaters Thursday to coincide with the rapper’s 46th birthday, All Eyez on Me has had a bumpy production history of lawsuits and high-profile departures. After passing through the hands of Antoine Fuqua, Carl Franklin and John Singleton, who worked with the real Tupac on the 1993 drama Poetic Justice, directing duties fell to Boom, best known for his extensive catalog of music videos for the likes of Nicki Minaj, Keyshia Cole, Snoop Dogg and Robin Thicke. His inexperience shows in a film that frequently feels like a soapy made-for-TV biodrama.
In purely financial terms, is it easy to see why All Eyez on Me got made. Two decades after after his death, Tupac remains big business. The bulk of his 75 million album sales have been posthumous, and his annual earnings often surpass today’s hip-hop royalty. He even performed in hologram form at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2012. There is plainly a large potential audience for Boom’s film; it is just a shame they are being served up such a conventional cookie-cutter affair.
The saving grace here is big-screen debutant Demetrius Shipp Jr., whose father actually worked with Tupac on one of his later albums. Besides being an uncanny physical match, Shipp persuasively embodies the late rapper’s sweet charm and sex appeal, though he is less convincing at summoning his volatile, violent, self-destructive side. His luminous performance is all the more vivid set against a largely one-dimensional backdrop of supporting characters.
Raised in Harlem, Baltimore and the Bay Area by single mother Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), a militant member of the Black Panther Party, Tupac grows up with sharp first-hand knowledge of systemic racism and police brutality. But he is also a smart kid, gifted poet and aspiring actor, studying drama alongside close platonic friend and future movie star Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham). A thuddingly on-the-nose screenplay makes heavy work of this duality, repeatedly underscoring the sensitive artist behind the angry rapper by having Tupac quote lines from Shakespeare.
Propelled to fame as a fringe member of Oakland rap crew Digital Underground, Tupac emerges as a charismatic new voice in hip-hop. Initially a kind of ghetto social commentator, he adopts an increasingly nihilistic “gangsta” persona that gradually consumes him. The pivotal point comes with him serving jail time for sexual assault in 1995, which only amplifies his outlaw image and draws him into the orbit of fearsome Death Row Records godfather Marion “Suge” Knight (Dominic L. Santana). In the process his friendship with fellow rap star Christopher “Biggie” Wallace (Jamal Woolard, who sportingly reprises his role from George Tilman Jr.’s 2009 biopic Notorious) turns sour, escalating a lethal rivalry between East Coast and West Coat rap factions.
The first half of the pic is framed in flashback as a video journalist (Hill Harper) interviews Tupac in jail, laying out key episodes from his life as a series of subjective vignettes. This clumsy narrative device helps explain why the screenplay omits a few inconvenient truths entirely, including the rapper’s youthful flirtation with Communism, his previous prison term for assaulting Menace II Society co-director Allen Hughes and his brief marriage to longtime girlfriend Keisha Morris. Nuance and context are lost in translation.
The rape case also plays out in a painstakingly one-sided manner, with Tupac as wholly innocent victim and his female accuser Briana (Erica Pinkett) presented as a stalker-level groupie. The real “Briana” (her name was changed for the film) has published her version of these events online, and it makes for ugly reading. Obviously these are contentious and legally delicate matters, but too much of All Eyez on Me seems designed to sell Tupac as a saintly soul who was too good for this sinful world. In doing so it infantilizes the man and diminishes his legacy.
Pretty much every white character in the film is a faceless caricature — racist cops, sadistic prison warders, dorky record-label bosses, etc. In fairness to the filmmakers, most of the African-American protagonists are similarly flat, too. Gurira gives great fiery intensity, but she is stuck with eye-rolling lines like “Your body is in prison, not your mind!” and “Like all black leaders, you have a bull’s-eye on your back!” Subtle as a punch in the face.
Given the tragic and highly charged events it depicts, All Eyez on Me is oddly low on emotional bite, perhaps because it never feels real. As clean and polished and blandly overlit as a TV soap opera, Boom’s film looks and feels smaller than Tupac’s cinematic life story. The live musical performances in particular seem cramped and muted, and all appear to take place in the same mid-sized club. There is little sense of how huge the troubled rap superstar became in his prime and the kind of energy such loose-cannon fame can unleash, not just in a concert setting but across the culture in general.
All Eyez on Me is billed as the “untold story” of Tupac Shakur, but there is nothing here that you could not glean from reading a few decent archive interviews while reeling through his greatest hits on YouTube. No shock revelations, no informed speculations, no fresh insights into his still-unsolved murder. Shipps and Gurira will go onto greater things, but it seems we will have to wait for 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s mooted documentary on the rapper for a more granular, grown-up portrait. However mighty his talents, however deep his flaws, Tupac deserves a more comprehensive screen memorial than this.
Production companies: Morgan Creek Productions, Program Pictures, Codeblack Films
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Keith Robinson, Annie Ilonzeh, Jamie Hector, Dominic L. Santana, Hill Harper, Grace Gibbons, Erika Pinkett, Lauren Cohan
Director: Benny Boom
Screenwriters: Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, Steven Bagatourian
Producers: David Robinson, L.T. Hutton, James G. Robinson
Cinematographer: Peter Menzies Jr.
Editor: Joel Cox
Music: John Paesano
Rated R, 137 minutes