Music video veteran Benny Boom’s lengthy, but unexceptional and slipshod biopic All Eyez on Me proves that even a mediocre film about the life of late rapper Tupac Shakur can be interesting in fits and starts. Shakur’s life was one of great drama, and the height of his celebrity and infamy overlapped the dizzying heights of one of music’s most popular and disreputable genres. Gangsta rap persisted both before and after Tupac, but the game changed so much when he arrived and stopped so completely when he died that the genre can’t be divorced from his legacy. Shakur built an entire scene in his contradictory image, so he’s a perfect candidate for a biopic, but he also deserves one that’s a lot more insightful and daring than All Eyez on Me.
It’s the story of a trailblazer, revolutionary, and deeply flawed human being told in a bullet-point form that’s akin to reading a checklist. Boom and screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian begin at the beginning and race to tell every major beat of Shakur’s childhood. The son of Afini Shakur (Danai Gurira), a former Black Panther, Tupac Shakur (played by newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr.) bounced around between homes in Harlem, Baltimore, and Marin City, California. There are plenty of fascinating potential threads that come up early on, but the only one that sticks is Tupac’s respectful push and pull he has with his mother. We learn that Tupac was a budding actor in Baltimore, who struck up a life long friendship with Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham). We learn that the only major father figure in his life at one point was Legs (DeRay Davis), a street hustler who seems fascinating and just as contradictory of a human as Tupac would become, but their interaction lasts for only a single scene. We see his early days as a member of Digital Underground, but only briefly get into the dynamics of that group. We see how much of a toll Afini’s drug addiction took on Tupac, but that gets only a single scene and a cutaway before it’s quickly forgotten about.
All Eyez on Me runs so swiftly through Tupac’s early years that it makes me wonder why one would even bother including all of this information if not much was going to come of it. The film starts and later abruptly quits revolving around a 1995 prison interview where Shakur should be talking about his feelings, but most of what he says to the reporter (Hill Harper) sounds like a fact checking session. I was left wondering what acting meant to Tupac rather than watching Boom and company ham-fistedly try to work in shots of Shakur on the set of all of his major films except for Poetic Justice (which seems like a massive oversight) and Gang Related. We even get a recreation of his bit part in the dreadful comedy Nothing But Trouble, and we still don’t know exactly what film and acting meant to him. Even more frustrating and egregious, the film depicts Shakur’s elaborate raps and gift for storytelling as coming from a love of poetry that never gets explained or examined beyond metaphorically shrugging and saying “he was just really good at what he did.”
These moments of Pac’s life are assembled in a logical fashion, but frantically edited together to a point where any sense of character, contemplation, or reflection has been deleted. “These are the things that happened, and here they all are,” the film says without a hint of irony or question. We would be here all day, but it would almost be easier going through all of Boom’s many scenes as parts to say why they work and don’t work, which is the ultimate sign of a botched whole.
One can’t knock All Eyez on Me for factual inaccuracy, though. Although the timelines sometimes get muddled and Boom has a distressingly cavalier attitude towards the sexual assault case that landed Shakur in prison, it is at least a film full of specific events that really happened to the subject, and given the number of conspiracy theories surrounding Pac’s life and death, it refreshingly refrains from putting words in the mouths of others. The moments are authentic, but rushed, mostly in a hurry to get to the final third of the film, where a post-prison Pac signs to Death Row Records. It turns out to be a poor decision because that final third is the most melodramatic, tabloid baiting section of the film with unconvincing casting (save for Dominic Santana’s imposing take on Suge Knight) and over-the-top, unintentionally funny moments more befitting of a made for TV production than a theatrically releasable film.
All Eyez on Me wants to desperately depict the soul and struggles of an artist without knowing how to define what a soul actually is. The result is a distancing effect that casts a pall over its overly comprehensive 137 minute running time. We spend a lot of time with Pac and learn a lot of facts about him (none of which will be new to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the rapper), but the viewer still doesn’t get to know who Shakur was as a person beyond the same persona he would use in media interviews. Tupac kept things real, but this isn’t a depiction of a real person. This is a depiction of a Tupac poster or album cover.
It’s a murky looking rush job that seems more excited on capitalizing on nostalgia and the success of Straight Outta Compton than delivering a solid depiction of Shakur as a human being. But Boom’s film does get one thing right: Shipp, who’s a dead ringer for Shakur, is a perfect choice of lead. Even when the film’s energy flags, Shipp’s ability to adopt Pac’s cadence, mannerisms, and swagger keeps the viewer interested. Although Shipp is clearly lip-synching to a lot of the film’s stacked soundtrack of hits, he makes the viewer believe he’s Tupac. Shipp alone makes this film worthy of a theatrical release. Without him, All Eyez on Me would be a dull, redundant misfire. With him, it’s an accurate, unexciting, and subpar film held together by a leading actor’s sheer force of will.
Tupac did an incredible amount of work before his death at the age of 25, and what ends up happening is that Boom gives precedence to each detail, no matter how fleeting, over any sense of emotional weight. It improves on reading Shakur’s WikiPedia entry, but it takes longer to get through and offers just as much insight.