All Eyez on Me purports to tell the true, untold story of rapper, poet and activist Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) What it doesn’t tell is why anyone should care why, twenty years after his death, his work still matters. But we do get to see a hell of a lot of booty and bullets.
Told mostly in retrospect from prison, where he is serving 18 months to four years for sexual abuse, the movie follows Shakur’s life, literally from the womb, as his heavily pregnant mother, Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira) is released from jail after defending herself against conspiracy charges as a member of the Black Panthers. Her activism exposed the young Tupac and his sister to the worst realities of police and government oppression, driving the family from their home in East Harlem to Baltimore and then to California, where they were exposed to levels of daily violence they’d never seen before. Always a gifted student, Tupac continued his passion for poetry and studied with the activist poet and performer Leila Steinberg (Lauren Cohan;) She had close ties to the recording industry and got him an audition with the hip hop group Digital Underground in 1990 when he was 19. From there, Tupac’s career exploded and he was signed to Interscope Records. So far, the tale of a young man who defies insurmountable odds to achieve not only financial success but critical acclaim, with the right to become the voice of African American youth and the voice of his generation by the time he was 21.
From there the movie devolves into a prolonged “gangsta rap” video. Orgies with long, lingering shots of scantily clad women, limousines, boozy brawls – the sort of bad-boy behaviour one might expect from any young man suddenly flush with a few million dollars and an equal number of adoring fans. (See: Justin Bieber.) But the violence escalates as a child was killed by a stray bullet from a gun he owned, he shot two off duty police officers in an ‘incident,’ and was convicted of sexual assault (cue embarrassing slut-shaming scene), culminating in a ‘robbery where he was shot five times. Sentenced to prison for 1.5-4 years for the sexual assault, he discovered he’d spent all his money and couldn’t raise the $1.4 million bail. He remained in prison for nine months while the case was appealed – until Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) came to his rescue with a deal with Death Row Records – which ultimately led to his murder in September of 1996. Curiously the script glosses over the east coast-west coast rivalry which also claimed the life of Notorious B.I.G.
Also missing from this prolonged gangsta video – any reason to care about Tupac Shakur – then or now. Demetrius Shipp Jr. does an acceptable job in the lead role. He bears a strong resemblence to Tupac, but fails to capture his charisma. Of course the cliché-ridden script gives him little to work with. Tupac shifts from prodigy to world-class jerk with barely a reference to any inner turmoil and mere lip service paid to the enormous volume of work he produced in those tumultuous years. What we see is a celebration of the thug life. His death seemed the only natural consequence of the life he lived, more a relief than a tragedy.
All Eyez on Me was in preproduction for several years, with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) originally signed on to direct with Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur as executive producer. But with a major script re-write, he quit the project and John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood, 2 Fast 2 Furious) came on board to re-write and direct. He also departed over creative differences. In the hands of either of these directors, this would have been a very different picture – an exploration of Tupac’s tormented genius and the struggles he dealt with as the violence he seemed to overcome as an adolescent overwhelmed him as he moved into adulthood. Singleton has announced plans to produce and direct a more authentic biopic.
The cast delivers good performances considering the final script was written by a committee of inexperienced hacks kowtowing to producers only interested in the bottom line. And in the hands of music video director Benny Boom, what we have is what he does best – a prolonged music video with lots of boobs, bums and guns.
Tupac’s life deserves better.
Watch the trailer here: