Like just about every other hip-hop fan growing up in the 80s and 90s, the tale of Tupac Shakur is a familiar one. When Notorious came out, I was disappointed in how the man and his side of the story was portrayed, so when All Eyez on Me was announced, I was excited.
Coming off the heat of Straight Outta Compton, it felt like this would be the third epic rap biopic hit from the era, but instead, it feels like watching a highlight reel with no depth. I’d rather have watched 2 hours highlighting 2Pac in jail or some other aspect of his life, but as a fan, it still struck me as an interesting movie. It just doesn’t hold up well against other musician biopics.
Even Afeni Shakur’s estate reportedly didn’t appreciate the portrayal (although many, including Snoop and Martha Stewart, approved). Instead, they’re backing an upcoming documentary from Steve McQueen. Love it or hate it, all eyes are on how well it’ll do at the box office.
Where some of the great musician biopics have worked is in revealing interesting ideas of familiar people, things that inspired the events we saw in the media. At this point, we have not only several notable 2Pac documentaries (and a Broadway musical), but several hip-hop-specific biopics that showcase how to make this happen.
The 2009 Notorious biopic about Christopher Wallace (which stars Jamal Willard as Biggie Smalls, the same guy playing him in All Eyez on Me) pretty much serves as the template for this film. Anthony Mackey (Papa Doc from 8 Mile) played 2Pac in the Biggie version, and both are limited in their new perspectives of the men being played. They do agree that Biggie had nothing to do with Pac’s shooting in NY, and both films should inevitably be sold in a box set to the only linked film that actually works.
Straight Outta Compton gets past the generic feel of the 2Pac/Biggie films by showing the trappings of fame. It also helps that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre themselves were so heavily involved. Cube’s son’s portrayal of him was magic, and, again, while there’s nothing wrong with the way 2Pac was acted, the movie gave no depth to his character. I suppose just like many rappers can’t carry a solo album without guest vocals on every track, it just takes a group of characters to make the hip-hop biopic memorable. Perhaps a Wu Tang or Cash Money biopic would fare better.
All Eyez on Me has several interesting elements, but they lack any new perspective. The movie does address several key controversial incidents in the man’s life, including a shooting early in his career, being accosted by the police, going to court for rape, etc., but we really don’t see what was going on in his life that led to those decisions. It failed to deliver much more context around the issues than what Shakur’s fans already know.
It was almost as though they hired a 2Pac lookalike to reenact Tupac: Resurrection. This isn’t meant as a knock on Demetrius Shipp Jr. As a performer, he felt like he was always 2Pac, and that was kind of the problem with the movie. Nobody is always that high energy. We never saw him at rest, never saw what fueled his passion. Even after he was killed, we never got to really see the aftermath.
He just…died, somewhat like how the infamous plane crash is depicted in The Buddy Holly Story vs La Bamba. In one, it’s just the end of the movie and a caption explaining everyone in the plane died. In another, Ritchie’s family learns of his death and reacts, adding breadth to the moment.
Through its faults, Notorious has a better overall rating than All Eyez on Me for the same reason La Bamba outshines The Buddy Holly Story – it addresses why these people became legends to us…why we care about them. All Eyez on Me takes for granted that 2Pac is a legend and, although it provides some fan service, it starts to feel like your annoying friend nudging you after every joke to make sure you get it. “eh? eh? eh? eh? eh?”
We get it – Jada Pinkett knew him, but you don’t have much reason to care. Suge was shown as the Suge we know from Straight Outta Compton (although different a different actor plays him), and it did get kinda crazy violent. At one point, they flat out made Suge an Untouchables type gangster boss who would throw extravagant meals and brutally beat people for no reason. This is what made the man notorious, and his lawyers okayed the portrayal after passing it by him while he’s on trial for murder charges. It really showcased how rough things were beyond just the beating he laid on Eazy-E in the previous movie.
While Tupac the man was often the center of controversy over 2Pac the artist’s work (think Marshall taking the blame for Slim Shady’s thoughts), All Eyez on Me was the center of its own controversy over a director shuffle. Antoine Fuqua was originally set to helm, followed by John Singleton (whose version had Pac getting raped in prison in a much less funny way than Lil Wayne did on Key and Peele), before finally landing on the lap of director Benny Boom.
Perhaps the reason this movie moves at such a frantic, passionless pace is that 2Pac’s short career was filled with memorable moments. There’s the shooting at the beginning of his career that started the controversy for the rapper. Then there’s the rape trial and his second shooting, which he notoriously blamed Biggie for. In fact, what could have made his movie better is if it stuck to the theme of the first half, which was through the lens of his prison interview.
Tupac’s early life with his mother Afeni moving from Baltimore to Northern Cali is shown through a series of flashbacks that are nice to see, but it fails to really illustrate his familial bond and how growing up in an all-female family inspired him. We never got to see 2Pac the poet like we see Marshall Mathers portray through his clearly-inspired-by-reality performance in 8 Mile.
Maybe this is why those closest to him didn’t like it.
Although seeing the ever so brief glimpses of his personal life were the highlight of the film, a close second is the Death Row Records and Suge Knight era. The film becomes a gangster flick filled with violence that really makes you understand what people have gone through for money, power, music, drugs, and fame.
It doesn’t do as good a job as movies like Walk the Line, Get on Up (the biopics of Johnny Cash and James Brown), or even Chess Records at showing the long road of show business, which is a shame because Pac had a much shorter career and life that could have been explored as deeply as The Doors, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, or Selena. A great actor and artist were seemingly ruined (although, to be fair, I know I would’ve hated a movie showing a man raped in prison for no apparent reason).
According to this movie, Tupac Shakur was falsely accused of rape, then falsely accused Biggie of being responsible for the shooting during the trial. These pivotal moments aren’t given much screen time, considering his incarceration frames the story and transitions from flashbacks to present tense. Although it never feels like present tense – you never feel connected to the man like you did when you listened to his albums, watched his interviews, movies, and music videos, or saw the man perform live.
As 2Pac attacks a rival gangster in the Las Vegas lobby and enters the car with Suge, I almost feel like we’re being shown the infamous security footage and iconic final photo before the shooting as proof, like “see? see? I did my research and got every detail right!”
Which could be true for the most part, but I’d feel better knowing more people from his camp were involved in shedding more light on the man himself that we couldn’t find in the endless parade of 2Pac documentaries.
While not the worst movie I’ve ever seen (even this year), All Eyez on Me is far from the best movie of its genre. If you’re a 2Pac fan, you’ll enjoy the movie. I grew up in that era and will never forget Strictly 4 My Niggaz, the first CD I ever got from the BMG Music Club (or Columbia House – who can keep them straight these days?). My best friend at the time, Jorge Segui, lamented the man’s death with me, and we occasionally reminisced of those days in the decades since.
For me, it was fun to watch, but I don’t feel like it really understood why 2Pac was so important to us. It never explored the boundary between celebrity and activist he represented. Hell, even the Beatles Anthology and The People vs John Lennon were able to handle that. Unfortunately, this movie is just average, and disappears from top 10 film lists the further away we move from a specific niche in a specific time.
If you really love 2Pac, or you’re curious what it was like living back then, check out the whole trilogy: Notorious, Straight Outta Compton, All Eyez on Me, in any order, to get a decent view of what gangster rap in the 90s was like. It just feels more like Hologram 2Pac than the real deal.
Final Score: C