Conspiracy theorists and super, hard-core rap fanboys could potentially have a great time with All Eyez On Me. Everyone else will have to wait on John Singleton to get the story of Tupac Shakur right.
Seems like it was just yesterday that Hollywood gave us Straight Outta Compton, a problematic if not intricately constructed and half-baked look into the lives of NWA (Niggas With Attitude). Fast forward a year later and we have director Beeny Boom’s contribution to this subgenre of music biopics — All Eyez On Me, a film that purports to dramatize the life of arguably rap’s most iconic talent. And no, I’m not talking about Christopher Wallace, aka, The Notorious BIG — although the actor portraying the famous Don of East Coast rap, Jamal Woolard, was intrigued enough to be lured back in front the camera for several cameos. What can I say, we live in an era of show business dominated by an obsession with franchises and interconnected cinematic universes.
Outside of an earnest documentary, bringing a live action version of Pac’s life to the big screen, from what I understand, has been a headache. Once you get past legal matters, like contractual approval from the Shakur estate, there is the matter of story, the breathe of life Pac lived in such a short amount of time. Any director worth his or her salt is mindful of the fact that there’s a lot of ground to traverse in Shakur’s short life, one in which he was never able to resolve the tension at the core of his vacillation between upholding revolutionary ambitions and the laborious birth of “Thug Life,” an acronym that translates to “The Hate U Gave Little Kids Fucks Everyone.”
Thug life, Pac insisted, was simultaneously a byproduct of the failures of a civil rights movement marred by political limitations and the means through which black, working-class America could finally pave a path toward actually fulfilling black revolution. And a path towards revolutionary-actuality was needed, and needed immediately.
Pac lived a mere 25 years, the blink of an eye as far as human existence is concerned. In hindsight, his headstrong manner of navigating through the world seemed to substantiate his view that, for the poor and marginalized, life is an emergency. And if you were black and poor, victims and circumscribed agents of racial capitalism — the folks he cared about the most and sought to medicate and provoke through lyrical pathos — life wasn’t promised. Death of various kinds and manifested in various forms seemed to foreclose the future and promise of black life.
It also, apparently, precluded the promise of this film.
Boom’s film opens with a voice-over of a fiery speech delivered by what we can only assume to be a black panther in full revolutionary mode before cutting to a reporter (Hill Harper) prepping a space in a room at the Clinton Correctional Facility for an interview with Shakur (Demetrius Shipp, Jr.). The entire first act is framed around their exchange.
The rapper and actor is set to serve a four-year sentence for rape. Throughout their back and forth, Tupac reflects on the trajectory of his life path almost in the vein of prophecy and martyrdom. From living in multiple inner cities in a short span of time — Harlem, Baltimore and Oakland — to his rocky rise to fame, to his mother’s unemployment and drug abuse (there’s no mention of how felt about the Panthers abandoning her during this tumultuous period), to his encounters with law enforcement, up until the moment of his court conviction for sexual assault, where he declared to the judge “I’m not in your hands. I’m in God’s hands.”
Boom makes absolutely no effort, I might add, to explore the circumstances of the rape charges filed against Pac from the perspective of “Briana” (Erica Pinkett), the woman (“Briana” isn’t her real name) who accused Pac and his entourage of gang rape. Instead, borrowing from Straight Outta Compton’s treatment of uncomfortable facts from Dr. Dre’s past, Boom omits anything that could damage Pac’s legacy as a symbol of resistance. In doing so, he offers yet another apologia for rape culture.
Crucial moments of 2Pac’s background, like the end of the trial that acquitted the Panther 21 where a pregnant and knowledgable Afeni Shakur bravely defended herself, and Tupac’s interaction with his stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, are shabbily touched on and interspersed with the present.
After we’re all caught up to date, after we see the state transporting a busload of new inmates, 2Pac among them, to the CCF, the film is fast-tracked, carelessly glossing over pivotal, post-jail incidents — the sharp ups and steep downs that are inseparable from unconditionally supporting a corrupt record label — that would ultimately culminate in the film’s protagonist making a fatal decision at a Las Vegas casino that many believed had signed his death warrant.
Not even his ascension to the apex of the rap game, where he reigned as an “exceptional black,” sparkles. Of course, the entrapments of capitalism collided with his observation, in his most insightful moments, that so-called “exceptions” to the rule of black existence provide a smokescreen for the structural reality of systemic racism and black poverty.
Eyez never manages to deal with the general issues (Reaganomics and the rise of AIDS during the ’80s, both of which a teenage Pac was concerned about) or the particulars of 2Pac’s life in any sustaining, interesting way. Take one particular, the birth of 2Pac the poet and social commentator, who would transpose some of his scribblings, like “Nothing 2 Lose,” into powerful anthems laced over bomb beats.
The filmmakers don’t bother with dissecting Shakur’s talent, the two-person book club he started with good friend Leila Steinberg, the origins of his deep love for reading and the written word. Beyond having 2Pac deliver the occasional Shakespeare quote and a short scene involving a financially strapped Afeni Shakur — who, struggling as a single, black mother for the majority of Shakur’s childhood, still managed to give her son a Christmas gift that appears to foreshadow his future — the film’s silence on this subject leaves the formation of Pac’s artistic identity a mystery.
That scene, along with the obligatory close-ups of Shakur surrounded by a cloud of weed smoke behind stage and ripping across raised platforms energizing his audience at performance time; and another, an intimate conversation between Shakur and his mother after she graduated from drug rehab; and another, involving the ruthless interrogation of a Death Row employee during a mafia-style formal dinner by enraged ex-bodyguard and gangster-turned record mogul Marion “Suge” Knight (Dominic L. Santana) furiously unleashing over discrepancies in the account book, were minimal sojourns into what the film was aiming to be, but could never approximate. (The mix of sudden horror and compassion captured in Shipp’s eyes, not the violence perpetrated by Knight, made that scene memorable.)
Many of the cuts were so quick that you barely had a moment to process whatever dialogue was exchanged or actions taken. Which might be a good thing, given that most of the conversations between the main and supporting characters felt hackneyed and canned. It’s almost as if Boom was confident that the supranatural resemblance of Shipp to 2Pac alone, combined with the actor’s semi-successful effort to psychologize a global icon, would be enough wind to carry the film. It wasn’t.
Faithful conspiracy theorists and hard-core rap fanboys who long for a return to the so-called “golden era of rap,” a return to the music of 2Pac’s generation, who long for the literal resurrection or resurfacing of the man himself, could potentially have a great time, find some sense of salvation, no matter what. Because, well, it’s 2Pac.
Admirers and hip-hop outliers, however, who are not at all impressed by the sight of a possible 2Pac doppelganger plastered onscreen will likely wince and pursue retribution when the next major, rap biopic is released, by leaving scores of seats vacant.
Great stories thrive on the right synergy of substance and style. All Eyez On Me is a lopsided mess and misses the mark completely. Consequently, it does a great disservice to Pac’s status as a cultural legend, despite whatever hype it may have generated when it dropped on his 46th birthday.
Word around Tinseltown is that John Singleton — the director who gave us the cautionary, Boyz In The Hood, directed 2Pac opposite Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice and who was a close personal friend of Shakur’s — had been tapped to direct this film and is still interested in presenting his own cinematic interpretation of 2Pac’s life.
Do yourselves a favor and wait for that version.