Today would have been Tupac Shakur’s 46th birthday, but the rapper was famously shot and killed a few months after he turned 25. With four studio albums, six posthumous albums, multiple movie roles, and over 700 songs to his credit, he put the very concept of prolific to shame. He was a renaissance man, whose enormous creative talent was only matched by his very public private life. With arrests, trials, shootings, jail time, and lyrical content that sparked a hackneyed moral debate led by Vice President Dan Quayle, he truly was larger than life. So much so that we’ve never been able to accept the fact that he is (probably) truly dead.
It’s a whole lot to fit into one biopic, and All Eyez On Me, the new film directed by Philly’s own Benny Boom, tries admirably. There’s been a growing critique of biopics among the film critic community, pleading with storytellers that, if this cinematic trend is sure to continue, at least trim the scope of the film down a bit. Isn’t it better to focus on one part of an artist’s life, that stands in for the whole? Judging from the rapturous audience at the United Artists Riverview in South Philly on opening night, that’s a point of view not shared by most.
Newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. stars as Tupac, and what at first comes off as an impression grounded by an uncannily similar appearance, slowly develops into something more. By the halfway point of the 140 minute film, I had forgotten that I was not watching the man himself. Few humans in history were as naturally charismatic and downright likable than Tupac— that Shipp captures his mannerisms and spirit so well is impressive. It’s not an interpretation— it’s a tribute to a beloved artist who was taken far too soon.
That turns out to be the right call for the film, which is very much working in tribute form. The many talking points that are critical of him are given voice, but ultimately the film comes down hard on the side of Tupac. Director Boom is very conscious of what his fans came to see- and he delivers the goods. When the film kicks into the high octane speed of his career, Boom’s experience as a music video director comes out, and the thing becomes, basically, a blast.
The clear antecedent to All Eyez On Me is 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, the very successful film about N.W.A. That movie sent a clear message to Hollywood that audiences want to see big movies about the modern black experience, with a healthy dose of 90’s rap nostalgia. If that film started off as a strongly focused period piece before going off the rails into bloated biopic territory, All Eyez On Me sort of does the opposite. It starts out as an all over the place kind of hot mess, rapidly checking off the several boxes of his life; before snowballing into something fairly riveting. It does so all through sheer dedication, kinetic energy, and the passionate commitment of its largely newcomer performances. Beyond Shipp, Dominic L. Santana stands out in a scene stealing performance as the famously ruthless Suge Knight, who runs his label Death Row more like a mafia don than a CEO. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira may be the true heart of the film as Tupac’s mother Afeni, a former black panther and the subject of one of his best songs, “Dear Mama.” She lends some emotional weight to a film that needs it where it can get it.
The film makes plenty of odd choices—particularly by using some dubbed dialogue that will do for voice—over work what Rogue One did for hologram acting. I don’t want to spoil it for you, because it really is that bizarre (and kind of hilariously so). While the concert performances are dynamite, the music tracks themselves are presented non-diegetically, choosing to stick with the studio recordings. It amounts to a sort of dance party rap-a-long for the audience- but I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Shipp just couldn’t pull it off. But the most questionable choice by far is the borderline victim blaming it does during the rape trial. Tupac’s accuser is portrayed in a harsh, gold digging, crazy girl kind of light. It’s not a very good look for a film that otherwise rightly shies away from making conclusions about his other unverified controversies.
Yet the film is largely a positive experience- in addition to the music, pulling you in thematically with stark portrayals of toxic and aggressive masculinity (including a Suge Knight dinner scene that seems to pull directly from The Untouchables) as well as the brutal treatment of the black community by law enforcement. Along with themes of Tupac’s love and appreciation for the beauty of blackness itself, this is definitely a movie that is cognizant of the Black Lives Matter era. It doesn’t shy away from harsh truths about our race based society- and how a lightning bolt like Tupac Shakur was maybe never meant to last long in it.
All Eyez On Me opens in Philly theaters today.