In April, I said a prayer to Blue Ivy, our dear sweet lamb of Beyoncé, that All Eyez on Me would be good. Every piece I've written leading up to the release of the biopic about Tupac Shakur's life and legacy has essentially been a fingers-crossed, hold-my-breath wish that the film would be as compelling as its source material.
Maybe it's because the twins weren't here yet and I wasn't able to call on the powers of the Holy Trinity but All Eyez on Me is not a great movie. It is not the movie Tupac Shakur's story deserved. It is, however, slightly better than the film’s more unfavourable reviews would lead you to believe. If you are a hardcore fan of Tupac, nostalgia will make up for some of the film's heavy-handed dialogue and Benny Boom's clumsy direction (be prepared for random slow motion and lots of fades to black). Hearing Tupac’s catalogue and watching the music videos and movie roles we all know so well play out with sometimes frame-for-frame accuracy will transport you right back to that era. But nostalgia can only go so far. All Eyez on Me hovers over the surface of Tupac's career hits and life highlights without ever going deeper into the man’s complexities and creative process. It’s a fine re-telling of the version of Pac’s life you can find on Wikipedia but fine is not good enough when it comes to the story of one of the most prolific, important and complicated rappers of all time. As Touré notes for The Daily Beast, Tupac’s story is worthy of so much more, from Pac’s family ties to the Black Panthers all to way to his tragic death, this could have made for a timely and classic film.
To portray a life this large accurately onscreen would require a film as majestic as The Godfather. He was our Michael Corleone—the product of an important family who learned and grew and rose to become the leader of a complex world where those closest were conspiring to kill him. That’s how big Pac’s life was. That’s how much he means to millions. More than any life in hip-hop history, Pac’s life deserves an epic film.
When I wrote about All Eyez on Me's first teaser trailer, I wrote that "the film will live or die by Shipp’s performance." I was wrong. Demetrius Shipp Jr.'s performance is actually pretty good but All Eyez on Me never lives up to his potential. There is no doubt that Demetrius Shipp Jr looks and sounds very much like Tupac Shakur – eerily so. In the hands of another director, Shipp Jr.’s raw talent could have been elevated to the likes of Oshea Jackson Jr in Straight Outta Compton. Similarly, Jackson Jr. had the look and cadence of the man he was playing (in large part because the dude he was playing was his father) but it never felt like he was mimicking Ice Cube. The same could be said for Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Eazy E. There are moments in All Eyes on Me where you can almost see Demetrius Shipp Jr trying to get Pac’s exact head tilts and speech pattern, like when the film reconstructs Tupac’s most famous interviews. In those moments, it feels like a gimmick. But there are flashes of brilliance in Shipp Jr’s portrayal of Tupac, mainly his interactions with Jada Pinkett (played by Kat Graham). Graham and Shipp Jr’s chemistry is one of the most magnetic elements of All Eyez on Me but after Jada Pinkett Smith blasted the movie by calling out almost every scene between Jada and ‘Pac as historically inaccurate, it was hard to buy into the honesty both Shipp Jr and Graham brought to their portrayals. I understand that the intention was to recreate the spirit of Tupac and Jada’s friendship and if All Eyez on Me was a better movie, I might be more willing to forgive the inaccuracies. Since it is not, the creative liberties the film took are just a letdown.
Which brings me to Suge Knight, played by Dominic L Santana. If you know anything about Death Row Records and that era of hip-hop, you know the stories about how Suge was basically a violent sociopath. In All Eyez on Me, he’s portrayed as the protective head of the Death Row family, watching over ‘Pac and Snoop like their very own Dominic Toretto. Yes, All Eyez on Me’s script is so bad it deserved that Fast and the Furious association. Suge’s temper is shown briefly in a scene where he stuffs lobster and champagne down a guy’s throat for stealing studio time but the way it is framed in the film, it almost seems justified. A movie that portrays Suge f-cking Knight in a positive light is not one I can fully get behind. That said, Danai Gurira is great as Tupac’s militant mother Afeni Shakur but she’s out-acting everyone so hard that at times, it feels like she’s in a different film.
The comparisons to Straight Outta Compton do not stop at the performances. When Straight Outta Compton came out, Ava Duvernay tweeted this:
To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.— Ava DuVernay (@ava) August 16, 2015
It’s a quote I come back to often. To be a female fan of hip-hop, especially during Tupac’s reign, was to know that your fave was also most likely problematic. I wouldn't call myself a casual Tupac fan. There was a time when All Eyez on Me and Makaveli were the only albums I listened to. My godsister used to hoard all of Tupac’s Word Up magazines from her cousin in New York and she would sneak them to me when our moms weren't looking. I remember the first time I heard Keep Ya Head Up and how much it meant to me. And yet, I only vaguely remembered that sexual abuse was the reason why Tupac was incarcerated in 1993. All Eyez on Me gets some credit for addressing the court case and conviction head on instead of glossing over hip-hop's treatment of women, like history so often has. All Eyez on Me did not ignore Tupac’s treatment of women like Straight Outta Compton did with Dre’s past of domestic and physical abuse. All Eyez on Me did not ignore the glaring asterisk of Pac's career but it handled the retelling of that part of ‘Pac’s life so poorly, it was offensive. Instead of delving into the juxtaposition of a dude who could write lyrics like this, “got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ why we rape our women, do we hate our women?”, and be convicted of sexual abuse, the film focuses on Pac’s version of events. As The Globe and Mail points out, the “screenwriters instead paint the most nauseating portrait of Shakur’s accuser possible, alternately depicting her as a sex fiend or a mess of hysterics.” Will we ever get a film about hip-hop that does right by the women involved in its history?
I’ve now written over a thousand words on Tupac’s life and I have yet to mention Biggie. That is because All Eyez on Me barely touches on the most fascinating rivalry in hip-hop history. Aside from alluding to the theory that Biggie had something to do with ‘Pac’s death, their conflict is hardly explored. This oversight is at the crux of All Eyez on Me’s most glaring flaws: it teases the good sh-t without ever delivering.
All Eyez on Me performed above expectations at the box office this weekend. While I’m glad people are supporting a film helmed by a black director and starring a predominately black cast, All Eyez on Me’s box office results seem to be the only thing about this movie that wasn’t a disappointment.