All Eyez on Me is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I’m attempting to see and review every single film that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2017. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
I confess, I knew very little about the life and music of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur before seeing director Benny Boom’s All Eyez on Me. But I don’t think one needs to be well-versed in either to know that Shakur’s legacy deserves a better movie than this. In fact, my ignorance just underlines the film’s flaws: I went in wanting to understand why Shakur is such an important, near legendary figure in American culture, and I came out of this limp, by-the-book biopic feeling none the wiser.
Whatever talent, magnetism, and relevancy the real Tupac Shakur had, All Eyez on Me fails to capture any of it, coming across as a small, irrelevant movie about a small, irrelevant man. Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions—and one suspects they were rooted in avarice more than admiration—All Eyez on Me is an injustice, a denigrating take-down clothed as a tribute.
Starring lookalike Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Shakur, All Eyez on Me is an example—and not a particularly competent one—of what I call a “checklist biopic”: just a chronological assemblage of “important” moments from a person’s life, dramatized and spliced together without any care for their individual meaning or their resonance for the overall narrative. (Credited writers Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian seem to have decided that their work began and ended with a slightly-expanded transcription of Shakur’s Wikipedia page.)
It begins literally ab ovo, in 1971, with Tupac gestating in the belly of his mother Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), a member of New York’s Black Panther Party who successfully represented herself in the infamous Panther 21 trial. From there we jump from moment to moment in Tupac’s life. We touch briefly on his childhood, being raised by Afeni and her revolutionary husband Mutulu Shakur (Jamie Hector). (“I’m gonna be a revolutionary too!” we hear little Tupac gush.) We see his first meeting with lifelong friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) when they were both students at the Baltimore School for the Arts. We get about 20 seconds of his first-ever rap, followed by maybe 30 seconds of his audition for the Oakland hip-hop group Digital Underground, and then Tupac is suddenly off on his first tour and on his way to super-stardom.
The film tries to hit every sensationalist landmark in Tupac’s life: his falling victim to police brutality in 1991; an altercation in Marin City that led to the accidental killing of a child; Tupac’s shooting of an off-duty Atlanta policeman in 1993; his being arrested for sexual assault in 1994, and being shot five times in an attempted robbery the day before he was sentenced to prison. The film is careful to show him as relatively innocent in all of these situations—most problematically in its treatment of the sexual assault incident, which Tupac literally sleeps through—but this sterilization of the record doesn’t make the film’s hero admirable so much as uninteresting. (One has to assume that the truth—about these situations, and about the man—was far more complicated and compelling than anything we see in All Eyez on Me.)
And it scarcely matters: Boom’s amateurish direction skips from one incident to the other more or less exactly like a stone skimming the surface of the water: touching down on each scene only briefly, leaving barely a ripple of impact or significance. He doesn’t take the time to linger on anything, let alone explore it. And the screenwriters—satisfied with telling, not showing—don’t seem to know what any of it means within the complex tapestry of Tupac’s life. There is no arc, no shape, no development of characters or relationships, no exploration of Tupac’s mind or soul.
Worst of all, the film never demonstrates why we are supposed to care. Shipp has Tupac’s look, but none of his intelligence, charisma, or intensity: far from being a powerful force of a nature, he comes across as slightly sleepy (and not too bright), getting shuffled through his own story like a clueless bystander. (Gurira’s is by far the more interesting performance, even if she is tasked with playing a different version of the character every time Afeni randomly shows up on-screen.) And the film’s screenplay is shallowly obsessed with Tupac the celebrity, not genuinely interested in Tupac the artist. We barely see Shakur performing music, let alone writing it, and the film never bothers to unpack what he might have been trying to say with it. The film seems to have no idea what Shakur’s music might have meant to anyone, and least of all to the artist himself.
What we are left with, then, is a series of shallow, uninspired reenactments of sensationalistic incidents, barely any more convincing or insightful than one of those horrible Lifetime “Unauthorized Story” movies. It is not informative, it is not insightful, and it is not even respectful, for it tarnishes and diminishes Tupac’s legacy by making his life boring, petty, and inconsequential. I have no doubt that there is still a great film to be made about Shakur, one that would be serious about exploring the considerable intelligence, talent, messages, and contradictions that are so obvious from the music, films, and interviews he left behind. All Eyez on Me—a lazy, amateurish hatchet-job masked as an homage—is decidedly not that movie.