Muddled and superficial Tupac biopic fails to ignite

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’s 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.

So how utterly disappointing that All Eyez On Me, the 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-psychology, entropic narrative treatment, and Wikipedia copy-and-paste. The tagline reads “The untold story of Tupac Shakur”. Yet all of this feels too familiar.

If the general insufficiency of the cradle-to-grave biopic isn’t yet acutely known, All Eyez On Me will help in making it so. Some of the most effective biopics in recent years, including Lincoln (2012) and Selma (2014), have taken a vignette from the lives of their titan figures 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 events that gives us plenty of information over an extended period of running time but tells us little or nothing about the man.

This is less an involving drama and more like an urban action thriller. In one scene Tupac ends up shooting at off-duty cops but none of it registers as serious drama with weight or consequence. Recently, the Nelson Mandela film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) and the failed Hank Williams’ biopic I Saw The Light (2015) also suffered by trying to stuff everything inside the turkey, right until the whole structure falls apart. Chapter by chapter, we go through the trials and tribulations of our heroes, most of it devoid of thematic cohesion or, indeed, dramatic structure. Films should not behave like literary biography.

Demetrius Shipp Jr. certainly looks like Tupac. The accuracy of his physical resemblance is most acute during the performance sequences, his shirtless deportment an eerily accurate recollection. But he’s also lacking in chops and 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 intend to show the passion of the artists but come across as strained, unconvincing and over-acted.

But this film isn’t interested in Pac’s art too much. Nor is it interested in the nature of art-making itself. When we meet Pac, he’s all but fully-formed, reciting poetry to his then-girlfriend Jada Pinkett (later Smith). It’s an ability attributed to the fact that he’s read Shakespeare. I too have read Shakespeare, but, alas, I cannot spit rhymes. Besides, the fact that the film keeps coming back to Pac’s appreciation of Shakespeare, as if in astonishment, feels more like the soft bigotry of low expectations. The poem is great, but its filmic recitation is mawkish and apparently, although 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 Bill Shakespeare? Not an iota of attention is given to the gruel and turmoil of his creativity. Pac’s ability as a poet and lyricist are accredited to nothing but God-given talent.

His ascendency from small-time poetry readings to the world-famous Gangsta rapper is so sudden and devoid of obstacle that we lose all sense of the 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 losing his social awareness because of wealth and womanly distraction. At the same time, the movie partakes in the decadent display and booty shots.

The film tries to tell a story about the corruption that wealth brings. Ultimately, Pac’s idealistic attempts to change things and bring awareness to issues in the Hood succumb to ego, wealth, and the vice of women. 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 depicted as little more than an “Angry Black Man”. The film only sees explosive drama in his rage and not, to its demise, his interiority. There is little warmth or complexity in this portrayal, just an aloof resting bitch face and no real understanding of an artist or what he did. All eyez avert your gaze.

All Eyez On Me is showing in cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.