I’ve been waiting years for a definitive Tupac Shakur movie. After watching All Eyez on Me, it’s clear I’ll have to keep waiting.
Shakur, my pick for the greatest rap artist who ever lived, died at 25. His cadence was fierce and aggressive, while his lyrics were hard hitting but often playful and clever (“And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a Black Queen, Mama”). He was incarcerated, survived being shot four times and is the son of a former Black Panther. He made a handful of movies and, curiously, released nearly a dozen albums after he died (a reason why so many believe he’s still alive). He remains controversial, for the lyrics in his music as well as sexual assault charges and accusations of misogyny. He was truly the Jim Morrison of rap, as his self destructive tendencies overshadowed the brutal poetry he created. Shakur is a great subject for a film. Unfortunately, Benny Boom, the director of Next Day Air, is not up to the task.
Shakur’s brief life is covered in what feels like a 140-minute montage, starting from his troubled childhood to his mentorship with Suge Knight. This isn’t another Straight Outta Compton. At its worst, this inches towards the awful miscalculation of Wired, the infamous John Belushi film bio.
All Eyez On Me isn’t just disappointing in what it leaves out but sloppy in its narrative structure. The first 20 minutes rush through so many incidents and blocks of years, it’s possible you’d be 10 years behind if you took a bathroom break. The political aspect of Shakur’s life feels cartoonish, due to how Danai Gurira overplays Afeni Shakur and the limited way the Black Panthers are depicted.
Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s performance as Shakur poses a real problem. Only in profile does he resemble the rapper and his acting runs hot and cold. The scenes where he recreates moments from “Juice” and “Above the Rim” only demonstrate how dynamic the real Shakur was in comparison. When footage of the real Shakur pops up in the final moments, it erases Shipp Jr.’s performance from the mind entirely. No one else steps up to carry the movie, which badly needed an anchor.
Kat Graham, star of The Vampire Diaries, boldly plays Jada Pinkett, who was noted to have deep relationship with Shakur. The three scenes that feature Graham playing Pinkett (and quite well) are too truncated and barely explore the intriguing layers of their platonic friendship.
Chris Clarke does a great impression of Shock G, the lead of Digital Underground (and yes, “The Humpty Dance” gets a big production number). Although Jarrett Ellis looks nothing like Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, or “The D-O-Double-G” or whatever he goes by these days) but his vocal impersonation is uncanny.
The real coup was getting Jamal Woolard, star of the very-good Notorious, to once again play Biggie Smalls. Yet, this winds up a bust, as Woolard is given much less to work with this time.
All Eyez One Me tends to leap over key incidents, avoid character development and mostly sanitize Shakur and Knight. Boom’s film brings up crucial aspects of Shakur’s persona (his contradictory behavior, dedication to his mother and troubled relationships with women) then moves on to yet another under- developed scene. It lingers on odd ’90s trivia, like Dan Quayle’s misspelling of the word “potato” and how Shakur lost the lead of Higher Learning.
There’s no mention of Poetic Justice or Gang Related, Shakur’s two best performances, though there is a vague reference to his acclaimed work in Gridlock’d.
The third act, where Shakur emerges from prison, works the best. Shakur’s success under Knight has intriguing bits but mostly feels like a promo for the music and image of Death Row Records.
Shakur’s longtime fans don’t need this movie. We already have Tupac Resurrection, which had the effective novelty of Shakur “narrating” his film posthumously. Anyone who goes to see All Eyez One Me to learn why 2Pac was so special should look no further than the music video for “Holla If Ya Hear Me.” The energy of that video, with its angry imagery accompanying Shakur’s thrilling cadence, is still exhilarating.