On what would have been his 46th birthday, Hollywood has made an effort to celebrate iconic rap artist Tupac Shakur with a biopic. For a figure with such an outrageous life story, and for a film that has been in development for over six years, you would think they could memorialize the legend with a better film.
All Eyez On Me spent nearly a decade in development limbo until the market improved its perceived profitability with the massive hit Straight Outta Compton. That intoxicating profile opened the doors for other rap icons to get their own films, but according to the New York Times, Tupac’s movie still experienced obstacles in securing national distribution.
This demonstrates there is still an ongoing pressure on black-centered features to prove their market value. To ensure an optimistic future for African-American cinema, All Eyez On Me needs to not only bring in big bucks at the box office, but to please attendees as well. Unfortunately, the latter challenge faces a tougher road, considering the biopic is an amateurish imitation of a resonating dramatic picture.
The movie sheepishly tells Pac’s life story via the lazy storytelling device of an in-prison interview. Conversations with a wary journalist chronicle the rapper’s upbringing to his rise to superstardom. After his release, the film then progresses to recount his conflict-ridden duration with Death Row Records until his still-unsolved assassination in a drive-by shooting in the streets of Las Vegas.
Tupac Amaru Shakur was an audacious, volatile, yet noble and sensitive individual. In contrast, his cinematic portrayal is slow, meandering, and inconsequential. In his lifetime he survived five shots to the chest, went to prison, propagated explosive public feuds, and met his demise in a shocking blaze of glory – yet amazingly, this material wasn’t enough to produce a memorable picture.
While All Eyez On Me floundered in stagnation, more capable directors were eyed to shape the movie including Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua. Morgan Creek Productions must have lost patience with the project, as they eventually settled on rap video veteran Benny Boom. The shift from music to drama is not a natural transition, and the result is the unmistakable work of a hack.
Acting newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. emulates Tupac in likeness, but clearly lacks the experience to ferry such a critical role. He fails to offer the complex emcee any degree of nuance, and he has a much softer voice than the concussive Tupac. During scenes of musical stage performances his lip-syncing is not convincing.
While Shipp Jr. turns in a middling performance, much of the supporting cast is utterly terrible. The portrayal of Tupac’s mother by Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) is particularly troubling. Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther activist and drug addict, was a devoted mother who emphatically instilled her beliefs in her children. Gurira’s boisterous approach is painful, and it feeds into negative stereotypes of black women.
Other famous figures are portrayed, and they aren’t much better. Jamal Woolard reprises his role as Biggie from the 2009 biopic Notorious, and successfully impersonates a sloth. Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett is okay but forgettable, Dominic L. Santana makes for an unimposing Suge Knight, and Jarrett Ellis accompanies obvious voice dubbing as Snoop Dogg.
Another major issue with the film is the depiction of the rapper through a defensive, fictionalized lens, lacking journalistic objectivity. Though the artist consistently maintained he would never hurt a woman, the choice to cement Tupac’s innocence in his sexual assault case doesn’t necessarily reflect available evidence. It is not Benny Boom’s place to exonerate the emcee of any possible wrongdoing.
The biopic closes with a clip of real footage from Tupac’s famous “spark that ignites the brain” speech. This brief snippet draws a clear line between the luminous inspiration of the actual musician, and the vapid impersonation we are subject to witness. All Eyez On Me is a shameful representation of a pivotal figure, and a far cry from the sizzling electricity of Straight Outta Compton.
Though the film is a disaster, we can take comfort in the fact that All Eyez On Me exceeded expectations at the box office this weekend. Even if the biopic will disappoint Tupac fans, they can rest easy knowing the movie confirms there is still a place in cinema for black issues.