Beginning with 2009’s Notorious (about The Notorious B.I.G.) and continuing in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton (a biopic about N.W.A), the movie world has slowly been building a unusual type of cinematic universe that seems to have the common element of featuring people who have had dealings with or worked for Death Row Records and its infamous leader Suge Knight. And while Compton featured a character (Dr. Dre) who worked for the label briefly, the new film, All Eyez on Me, throws the spotlight on its biggest artist, Tupac Shakur. Thankfully, the film doesn’t limit itself to that relatively brief time in Shakur’s life and career, but it’s interesting watching the pieces fit together.
Unlike most other music biopics that focus on a particularly interesting or productive period in an artist’s career, All Eyez on Me is a cradle-to-grave telling of Tupac’s life—from being the son of a Black Panther leader to his brutal slaying in Las Vegas—with newcomer (and dead-on look alike) Demetrius Shipp Jr. taking on the lead role. Shipp is called up to illustrate many variations of Shakur’s persona, from enthusiastic acting student in school, to sensitive young poet, to disappointed son when his mother Afeni (Danai Gurira, best know as Michonne in “The Walking Dead”) pulls him out of school to move to California, to voice of his generation, to promising film actor, to an enraged paranoid who believed his friends out to rip him off or worse. It’s a startling performance that is unfortunately couched in a screenplay that only skims the surface of what made Tupac so interesting and compelling.
Among the array of interesting actors in the film is “The Vampire Diaries” star Kat Graham as Tupac’s longtime friend Jada Pinkett. The two had known each other since attending a performing arts high school together in Baltimore, and kept in touch as both of their careers took off. As the film portrays things, she was a grounding force in his life, but even she couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening. The handful of scene Shipp and Graham have together are among the film’s best because they’re about more than just the success and fame; they’re about Tupac remembering the things that used to be important in his life. The burden of being the voice of his generation was destroying those things. It is noteworthy to mention that Jada Pinkett is not at all thrilled about her portrayal in the film, calling it “deeply hurtful” in a series of tweets.
But so much of what surrounds those scenes is like a highlights reel—being exposed to the militant voice of the Black Panthers, his time in the Digital Underground, being signed to Interscope Records and feeling like he wasn’t getting any money, which led to his jumping ship to Death Row after Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), who is wisely portrayed as both menacing and highly supportive of his artists. We see Tupac’s interactions with labelmate Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis), and watch as Shakur works almost nonstop, jumping from studio to studio recording to fulfill his three-record deal with Death Row (which included the rap world’s first double album, which shares a title with this film).
Even though All Eyez on Me has a 140-minute running time, it still feels rushed. Tupac’s life had so many components worthy of focus that director Benny Boom is forced to give most scenes a condensed feel, trimming any chance of lingering in a moment too long. Even the glimpses of Tupac on stage (which Shipp re-creates beautifully) are truncated. Most of the movie is framed as flashbacks, as Tupac is relating his story from jail to a journalist (Hill Harper), who might be the most aggressive interviewer ever portrayed on film. He’s more of a provocateur than journalist, but he does manage to keep Shakur talking about his life openly and challenges him to look at the contradictions in his music. If the film is to be believed, Tupac did listen to his critics, taking in their charges that his songs were misogynistic and responding with a song like “Keep Ya Head Up.” I’m not sure I buy that order of events or their speed, but it fits well into the mythology.
One of the smartest things the filmmakers do is bring in Jamal Woolard to play Notorious B.I.G., just as he did in Notorious. Although that film did cover the initial friendship between Shakur and Smalls, All Eyez on Me gives it a lot more room to breathe and feel like an actual friendship. Biggie wanted to create party music and have fun, but Tupac encouraged him to go deep and use his fame to become a voice of the people. The reasons for their falling out and eventual feud seem to involve third parties that floated in and out of both of their circles. But whatever caused it, the movie seems to verify that their beef was over something ridiculous and exploded over warped definitions of masculinity and respect.
All Eyez on Me doesn’t attempt to uncover who killed Tupac (or Smalls a few months later), but it does make his death seem like an inevitable product of the lifestyle. Even with a new and fulfilling love interest in his life at the time (Kidada Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones), Tupac couldn’t resist the temptation to beat up some random guy he believed wronged him or one of his entourage in some way, and it may have lead to his getting killed. There’s undoubtedly an interesting movie or miniseries about Tupac’s life to be one day, but All Eyez on Me isn’t quite that. A combination of too many scenes that feel like abbreviated versions of a life and not enough illustrating what made Shakur unique and important sink the film when all is said and done.
Although it certainly doesn’t try to cover up his flaws (the movie spends a significant amount of time on his fighting a rape charge), the film almost treats his less-than-perfect moments as if they were necessary to create one of the greatest rappers of all time. The cast gives good performances, but when you’re working with an overwritten screenplay like this one, there’s only so much that they can do. It’s a closer call than you might think, but All Eyez on Me sells Tupac’s life short.