If they didn’t already have low expectations, anyone going to see Tupac Shakur’s biopic All Eyez on Me should have them by now. Critics have dragged the Benny Boom-directed film, which opened June 16. But did anyone expect anything different?
The hip-hop biopic is still a fresh concept. Most are reduced to the straight-to-VH1 wasteland, where All Eyez on Me, frankly, belongs. Few make it to the big screen, and even fewer get it right. Notorious, the 2009 retelling of ’Pac’s former friend-turned-rival Notorious B.I.G., was glossy and generic (Jamal Woolard, who starred as Biggie, reprises the role for All Eyez on Me). Straight Outta Compton should have been the blueprint—it documented the tensions of race, politics and justice in the ’80s, all with great acting, great directing and N.W.A.’s explosive music. All Eyez delivers none of those things.
Fresh-faced lead Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s greatest strength is having been born looking like the “California Love” rapper. Draped in ’90s Karl Kani (his outfits are the film’s real star’s) with “Thug Life” tatted on his stomach, Shipp looks damn near identical. Appearance aside, Shipp offers very little of ’Pac’s passion and charisma.
Tupac was, of course, a complex figure. The film attempts to portray him as such, emphasizing his mother’s revolutionary roots and his streetwise consciousness, then juxtaposing it with his hot temper and love for the fast life. Unfortunately, Afeni Shakur (Tupac’s mother, played by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) is often reduced to clichés. Still, she offers some wisdom: “They are going to give you the tools you need to destroy yourself.” Whether it’s a real quote or not, it serves as a cautionary omen for Tupac’s many controversies, from rape allegations to a near-death shooting in New York.
All of that and more is crammed into the film, the bulk of it told lazily through a series of flashbacks during a 1995 prison interview. We see his pregnant mother for a quick flash, then his Black Panther stepfather. Soon, he’s auditioning for Hamlet—Shakespeare quotes appear often in the film, adding to its cheesiness—and palling around with a young Jada Pinkett (played by Kat Graham). Even if you’re familiar with Tupac, much of it feels hurried. But diehard fans—those who still think ’Pac is smoking a blunt in Cuba right now—might get a kick out of seeing each stage of life, from recording “Same Song” with Digital Underground to his relationship with Kidada Jones.
The most disappointing part is that the music itself is given a backseat. While the film deserves kudos for highlighting “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” we see little else of ‘Pac’s writing process or the inspirations for his powerful music. The live performance scenes are almost disrespectful in their lackluster. I was too young to see Tupac live, but I can’t imagine him performing in what looked like basements at the height of his career.
There’s a lot to Tupac’s story, and All Eyez on Me blinks at nearly every aspect of it. For those who admire Tupac as a martyr and deity, there’s plenty to cheer at and rap along to, even if the cinematography and acting are subpar. The most we can hope for out of All Eyez on Me is that the hype surrounding it that gets Me Against the World a few more Spotify plays.