It’s somewhat surprising that we haven’t received a big-screen biopic on the life of Tupac Shakur until now. After all, the iconic hip-hop artist led quite the life in his tragically short 25 years and remains beloved by many, many fans the world over. Alas, various issues, including collisions over rights and creative choices, have kept a film at bay for years. 2017 finally sees a Tupac pic hit screens in the form of All Eyez on Me, a lengthy picture that attempts to cast a wide spotlight on the rapper, actor, poet and activist… and sadly falls far short of the mark.
The film endeavours to cover as much ground as possible, from Pac in high school, to his stint with Digital Underground, to his time in prison for sexual abuse, to his period with Suge Knight (a lackluster Dominic L. Santana) and Death Row Records. While the decision to take so many pivotal chapters of the man’s life to the screen is certainly ambitious, this simply isn’t the right team for the job.
There’s no other way to put it: Director Benny Boom, whose credits include a number of hip-hop music videos and such film fare as Next Day Air and S.W.A.T.: Firefight, is in over his head. All Eyez on Me features scene after scene of awkwardly handled staging and performances, and deeply inconsistent pacing. Countless sequences begin and end clumsily, with the tiniest of plot points left dangling so that the next scene has something to follow on from. When it comes to direction, this is far from a cinematic effort; if it weren’t for Tupac being the subject and a handful of semi-strong moments, you could easily confuse this for a straight-to-home-video hip-hop drama. Then again, it’s not like Boom has much of a script to work with.
Screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian approach the material simplistically. Want to learn the basics of Tupac’s life? They’ve got you covered. All Eyez on Me is a series of dot points and re-enactments, providing you with information that you could easily glean from a quick internet search. Each plot turn is another snapshot of a period in Tupac’s life, which could make for some riveting, layered cinema if the screenplay had perhaps chosen a few moments to explore more deeply, instead of delivering a ‘best of’ compilation with little emotional drive.
Which brings us to the overall structure of this biopic, which is more than a little frustrating. The first quarter races rapidly through Tupac’s early life to get to his celebrity status, barely touching on anything in particular and making one wonder why they even bothered including it at all. There’s also an interview-flashback narrative structure used for the first half, which doesn’t add much to the proceedings and feels all the more insubstantial when it’s dismissed and we roll right past it. The second half, although not without a few sparks here and there, plods along until the film’s expected, tragic conclusion unfolds with little power. And that’s not mentioning the unintelligently inserted redos of Tupac’s music videos.
Not all aspects of Tupac’s life are glossed over without merit though. A few scenes with Tupac and his mother, Afeni Shakur (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira – doing her best despite being underused), serve up some decent characterisation. The film would have benefited from focusing a little more on their relationship, which influenced both of their lives greatly. Tupac’s friendship with Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) also touches on some potential, but is dismissed to the background in favour of more summed-up chapters from the book that is Tupac’s life.
The film holds no qualms about where it stands: the late Tupac deserves all the praise he receives. This is fine, of course, and many biopics have delivered while holding their subjects in admiration; 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, for example, did just that. That being said, issues can arise when a film seems to be ironing out all the creases, less you dare to think any less of its protagonist. All Eyez on Me lightly brushes past a number of Tupac’s potential layers, choosing to keep everything matter-of-fact and leaving little room for the grit, complexities and – God forbid – shortcomings that could paint him as more human, and emotionally more relatable as a result. And, disappointingly, it occasionally oversteps its one-sided mark; the treatment of the rapper’s sexual assault accuser, for example, who is painted in a shamelessly negative light.
In the lead role, Demetrius Shipp Jr. is passable. He certainly looks the part and he has the icon’s mannerisms mostly down pat, but he’s missing that charm, that gravitas, that ‘enter a room and control it’ element that drew so many. This is Shipp Jr.’s first ever feature film; while it’s great to get a fresh face to take on such a role, a little more experience wouldn’t have hurt.
All Eyez on Me is an unsatisfactory film no matter how you look at it. When you consider how long it took for us to get a film focused on Tupac Shakur, it’s downright disappointing. At least the artist’s music is blasted, often, although that will mean little to those who aren’t fans of his music.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10