David G. Hughes on Benny Boom’s ‘All Eyez On Me’ (2017)
In the 18th Century, Andean revolutionary Túpac Amaru II led a failed revolt against the Spanish rule of Peru. For his transgression, he was duly quartered and beheaded at the behest of the Empire. Named after the martyred Peruvian by his Black Panther parents, it seems providential that Tupac Amaru Shakur, one of hip-hop’s most iconic and celebrated pioneers, would become a revolutionary of his own and suffer a premature death. As such, how utterly disappointing that All Eyez On Me, an inevitable cinematic biopic of Tupac’s twenty-five fascinating and controversial years, is an anti-revolutionary task-force all in itself — a bien pensant attempt to encapsulate its subject by way of glib pseudo-psychoanalysis, entropic narrative treatment and Wikipedia transcribing. The tagline says “The untold story of Tupac Shakur”, and yet all of this feels way too familiar.
If the insufficiency of the cradle-to-grave biopic wasn’t yet acutely known, this has surely helped in making it so. Some of the most affective biopics in recent years, including Lincoln (2012) and Selma (2014), have taken a single vignette from the lives of their titan figures, a limited period of time, and fleshed it out. It doesn’t take a lifetime to gain insight into a person, sometimes it takes a moment. In contrast, All Eyez On Me is a rapid-fire succession of vignettes that gives us lots of information over an extended period of running time but tells us little or nothing about the man. This feels less like an involving drama and more like an urban action thriller, where Tupac can be shooting at off-duty cops but none of it registers as serious drama with consequence. There is far too little humanity. Recently, the Nelson Mandela film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom(2013) and the failed Hank Williams’ biopic I Saw The Light (2015) suffered by adopting a similar approach – trying to stuff everything inside until the whole structure falls apart. Chapter by chapter, we go through the trials and tribulations of our heroes, most of it devoid of real thematic cohesion or, indeed, point. Films should not act like printed biographies.
Demetrius Shipp Jr. certainly looks like Tupac, the accuracy of his physical resemblance most acute during the performance sequences, his shirtless deportment an eerily accurate recollection. But he’s also lacking in all nuance. During a production session scene, we see Pac getting mad because his music isn’t how he wants it. It recalls a scene in another failed biopic –Jobs (2013), when the Apple CEO fires a man on the spot because he doesn’t understand the importance of typeface. Both scenes are strained, isolated and over-acted, intended to showcase the passion of the artist. But this film isn’t interested in Pac’s art too much, nor interested in the nature of art itself. When we meet Pac, he’s all but fully-formed, reciting poetry to his then-girlfriend Jada Pinkett (later Smith), an ability attributed only to the fact that he likes Shakespeare, a fact that the film keeps coming back to as if in astonishment that a black man appreciates Shakespeare. The poem is great, but its filmic recitation is mawkish, and apparently, though unsurprisingly, the scene never even happened.
Pac was a prolific artist, having released four solo studio albums in life, seven in death, and starred in six films all before he was even twenty-five. But do we get to see or even speculate what motivated him and inspired him beyond Shakespeare? Not an iota of attention is given to the gruel and turmoil of creativity. Here Pac’s ability as a poet and lyricist is accredited to nothing but God given Great Man theory. Oh, did we mention that he is fond of Shakespeare? His ascendency from small time poetry readings to world famous Gangsta rapper is so sudden and devoid of obstacle that we lose all sense of a film being about an artist and the nature of his art. It wants to get to the good stuff — salacious gossip and party extravagance, with the intent of moralising about Pac loosing his social awareness because of wealth and womanly distraction, whilst at the same time enjoying the decadent display and convenient booty shots.
The film tries to tell a story about the corruption that wealth brings, how Pac’s idealistic attempts to change things and bring awareness to issues in the hood, succumbs to his ego, the vice of women, and a desire for wealth. I think. But it’s a muddled gallimaufry of intents and purposes, torn between doting reverence for the man (even to the extent that it disturbingly takes the law into its own hands and unequivocally exonerates him of a rape crime he was legally convicted for, seemingly because Tupac said he didn’t do it) and token suggestions of a “dark side”. By the end of it, Pac is little more than an Angry Black Man; the film only sees drama in displays of his rage, and not, to its demise, in his interiority. There is little warmth or complexity in this portrayal, just an aloof resting bitch face and no real sense of an artist or what he did. All eyez avert your gaze.