On September 7th, 1996, Tupac Shakur was attacked in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas by a still-unknown assailant. Six days later, the hyper-influential rapper passed away from his injuries, leaving behind volumes of pre-recorded material and a legacy forever tinted by tragedy and mystery. Shakur existed at an intersection of eras, as the older civil rights movement gave way to the ground-level cultural reportage of early ‘90s rap and the mainstream music scene became a battleground for politics like never before. But over time, the artist was dragged into many of the same traps he grew up trying to avoid, even as he slowly grew into his role as a spokesman for some of America’s most underserved citizens. His story is as fascinating as it is troubled, and it’s the sort of tale that makes for an ideal biopic subject. It’s a shame, then, that All Eyez on Me is the opposite of an ideal biopic.
Were it not for the theatrical release and the bloated 140-minute runtime, All Eyez on Me wouldn’t feel out of place on VH1 around the turn of the millennium, as a layman’s blow-by-blow account of the major incidents in Shakur’s life. Benny Boom’s drama often feels more like a filmed Wikipedia entry than an account of the rapper’s rise to fame and all the problems that so often accompany it. Stylistically, All Eyez on Me plays like a TV movie of the most disreputable kind, a stiff montage of bullet points that misses out almost entirely on the emotion and cultural importance that accompanied them at the time. It doesn’t help that several of the live performances re-enacted throughout the film appear to take place on the same set, the Las Vegas climax doesn’t even attempt to make the city resemble itself circa 1996, and even some of the most pivotal life events that Boom ticks off are left stilted by the melodramatic, occasionally shabby presentation. (The massive number of licensed tracks loudly mixed over the proceedings might be one cause of the film’s low-budget aesthetics.)
Using an interview that Shakur conducted in prison as a framing device, the reporter (Hill Harper) asks tin-eared leading questions of the rapper in order to trigger flashbacks to every significant formative moment of Tupac’s childhood and adolescence, scenes that hew closer to a humorless rendition of Walk Hard than they reasonably should. From his teens onward, Shakur is portrayed by Demetrius Shipp Jr., who’s as convincing as both a young and older Tupac as the shaky, boilerplate screenplay allows. (In physical resemblance alone, he’s just close enough to still appear a bit off in some scenes.) His mother, Afeni (Danai Gurira), a famed Black Panther who was acquitted of terrorism charges while pregnant with Tupac and making her own defense, educates him on the importance of lifting up one’s entire community as an honorable life’s work. His close friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) helps keep him humble and brings out his vulnerable side. After struggling through police discrimination, institutional racism, poverty, and his mother’s battle with addiction, Shakur moves up to his run with Digital Underground and onward on his ascent to fame and fortune.
Shipp Jr. is just one of a handful of the film’s actors done a disservice by the leaden screenplay, which is as flagrantly riddled with clichés and lazy moments of recognition as any film of this subgenre. Tupac stands in Death Row’s offices, mulling over the title of his final record, and muses on how “it’s like everybody is looking at me right now.” He stands onstage after a run-through and imagines the empty room full of people chanting his name. He stands on a balcony with Biggie (Jamal Woolard, reprising his performance from Notorious) and converses about the importance of their loyalty to one another. The suits at Interscope attempt to get Shakur to “tone down” his raw lyrics, and he rebukes them in one of a series of endless preaching monologues Shipp Jr. is tasked with delivering. There isn’t a conversation in the film that isn’t weighted with obvious foreshadowing, and by the time he dons his basketball jersey and his chain to enjoy a night on the town in Vegas, Tupac may as well be Lincoln preparing to head to the theatre. There’s no blatant allusion that All Eyez on Me won’t push as far as it can go and well beyond.
But if the earlier, interview-centric portion of the film is merely trite, the film’s middle third sees All Eyez on Me mutate from a heavy-handed biopic with good intentions to a heavier-handed one rooted in some reproachable politics. In addressing the 1993 sexual assault case that saw Shakur exonerated of a rape charge but convicted on other counts of sexual abuse, All Eyez takes pains in railing against his sentencing as the product of a racist system, with little regard for nuance around such a difficult subject. Several minutes of screen time are dedicated to detailed stagings of Shakur’s account of the night in question (which Boom frames with an inappropriately erotic leer), and a prison visit between Afeni and her son further reinforces that his conviction was nothing more than a political attack. The film’s unyielding disregard for any nuance about this fraught period of his life starts as off-putting and ends in unquestioning apologia, right down to Boom’s decision to film the accuser smirking over the verdict.
We haven’t even touched on the overlong performance sequences (if you were worried the film wouldn’t feature a full-length live delivery of “The Humpty Dance”, fret not) or the film’s penchant for waving away any talk of the rapper’s misogyny with a reaffirmation that he loved his mother and some of the other women in his life. Or Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), who’s presented as a real-life supervillain as Tupac’s once-kinder soul is devoured by the temptations and mob-like mentality of Death Row Records. But to criticize such an over-stylized, emptily dramatic movie seems a fruitless exercise given how generally uninterested All Eyez on Me is in complicating its subject. This is a commercial for Tupac Shakur the icon, and there’s more truth about the man to be found in any one of his songs than this entire two-and-a-half-hour film can muster.