Overall: Rapper Tupac Shakur rises to fame, controversy, and tragedy. Summit Entertainment; 2017; Rated R; 140 Minutes.
T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.: In an improvised scene in Chris Rock’s under-celebrated 2014 comedy Top Five, Rock sits in a room with equally funny comedians and muses about how Tupac Shakur’s life might have unfolded had he not been murdered in 1996. There’s no way we could predict, Andre (Rock’s character) explains, if today we would be talking about Senator Shakur or the supporting actor in a Tyler Perry movie. It is, at base, a funny set of hypotheticals, but it also speaks toward the impossibility of posthumously establishing a grounded baseline of truth about legendary artists, particularly those who are taken before their time. We’ve seen filmmaker adoration and affection dilute rock, pop, and hip-hop biopics before. To varying degrees, The Doors, Love & Mercy, Walk The Line, and even last year’s generally triumphant Straight Outta Compton have all suffered to their director’s reservation to “go all the way” in discovery of the complex and not-always flattering truth about their subject. And Shakur, perhaps more than any artist in the history of Western pop music, has been further lionized through a fine-polished mythology. And this alone is reason enough that perhaps a biopic about the rapper was, from the outset, a bad idea. But there was, it turns out, no way to predict just how bad of an idea Director Benny Boom’s film would prove itself to be.
A Rose Stuck Under Concrete: It’s one thing to point out that the opening act of All Eyez On Me presents Tupac’s mother, political activist and Black Panther Afeni Shakur (played by Danai Gurira), in a series of overacted and melodramatic vignettes that de-contextualize her from her revolutionary significance. Or to observe that the end of the film cheaply employs the known details of Tupac’s unsolved murder to force emotion that it fails to earn otherwise. Or even to provide examples of how everything in between these two mishandled segments unfolds like a story made of bullet points rather than a script, strung together with incurious and hollow hero worship, sewn with shameless recklessness using single verse samplings from all of Tupac’s biggest commercial hits. All Eyez On Me is lazily scripted, awkwardly edited, and poorly acted, but none of those disappointing distinctions account for the worst of the experience.
Change Is Good For Any of Us: There is no question that Tupac, as an artist, carried the power and voice of a revolutionary, that he spoke toward a truth of the Black American male experience that made his position as a philosophical and sociological leader impossible to deny. That is an understood perspective that the film immediately adopts, but never steps back from. And there is no effort thereafter to display Tupac as the imperfect and complex person that we should now, twenty years later, be able to admit that he was. Boom, whose background is in music videos, exhibits minimal or zero interest in doing anything more than bronzing the mythological statue of the legend and polishing the image of the person upon which that legend sits. And while there is nothing particularly egregious about a biography that admires its subject, it must be stated that a biography about this particular figure requires a more surgical handling than most.
There are narrative presumptions, obfuscations, sidesteps, and short cuts in every scene in All Eyez On Me, ranging from dishonest to dangerous.
Consider how Boom decides to present Notorious B.I.G., Tupac’s close friend turned foe, played here by Jamal Woolard. Often used by Boom as a simple and unmotivated foil to Pac’s brilliance and ambition, Biggie’s heaviest segment of dialogue, I think, is when he blinks stupidly at Tupac’s reciting of Shakespeare and asks Shakur what he’s talking about. But at other times, the narrative seems to recklessly implicate Biggie in the initial incident that sparked the rivalry between the two, a botched robbery in which Tupac survived being shot five times in an apartment lobby. Though a longstanding theory in rap conspiracy, Biggie’s involvement has never been supported with credible evidence, and yet this film makes no clear and intentional effort to soften its presentation of the theory as part of its storyline. Later, when a member of Tupac’s Death Row record label entourage is assaulted, the victim identifies his attackers as being members of the Bad Boy crew, the rival New York-based record label to which Notorious B.I.G. was signed. This incident is revisited the night of Tupac’s fatal shooting, positioned as the reason that Tupac is gunned down in his car hours later, but no correction or even figurative asterisk is offered, drawing a dangerously assured line of reasoning that implicates people who were never considered actual suspects in Shakur’s murder, including Biggie, who himself would be murdered less than a year later in a mystery that also remains unsolved. All Eyez On Me, because of undisciplined filmmaking, will always stand as an insult to the artistic intelligence and presumed innocence of an artist equally as important and tragic as its subject.
And still, we haven’t gotten to the most troublesome offense yet.
Midway through the movie, Tupac’s unnamed interviewer (played by Hill Harper), whose conversations with the then-imprisoned rapper work as the framework for the film’s narrative until their discussion is abruptly ended about three-quarters of the way in, asks directly about Tupac’s history of misogyny and misogynistic lyrics. For scale, Tupac’s discography includes a song called Wonda Why They Call You Bitch about a woman who has sex, has a baby, spends her government assistance on luxuries, and contracts AIDS. So this question was refreshing to hear bluntly asked in the film. Next to a tacked on scene in which Jada Pinkett (yes, that Jade Pinkett, who was a teenage friend of Shakur’s; played here by Kat Graham) lays into Tupac, it’s the closest Boom comes to holding Shakur accountable for any of the marks against his legacy. Tupac, however, replies by assuring the interviewer that he loves women, and the film cuts to a scene of him randomly handing some money to a mother in a parking lot, then to a scene in which Tupac sings a song to a crowd of dancing and smiling women, and that’s it. Accusation put to rest.
If the dubious misdirection weren’t troublesome enough, the next chapter of the movie reveals that Tupac is in prison during this interview because he is serving time for sexual assault. To punctuate this tone deaf stretch, Boom ultimately spends ten shoehorned minutes putting the victim (not “alleged” victim, but victim; Tupac was found guilty) on cinematic trial, the story showing an innocent Tupac awakened from sleep to frantic accusations before being befuddled by his arrest.
Tupac always maintained innocence in the gang rape accusation, his charge was of a lesser degree of assault, and there are questionable details in the trial (the two men charged separately for the same incident avoided jail time, for instance), but none of this warrants a fictionalized narrative damnation in 2017 of a court-confirmed victim of sexual assault, particularly considering that in real life, Tupac never explicitly denied that she was raped, only that he was involved.
When the verdict is read on screen, the camera catches Tupac’s victim reacting joyfully. No less than four different attendees in the cinema in which I watched All Eyez On Me half-whispered “bitch” at that very moment, and I can’t remember feeling more disgusted in a theater.
A better filmmaker might have pulled this off, segmenting and elevating what made Shakur such a brilliant artist and powerful icon while also exploring the damage that can be done between a musician’s artistic intent and its cultural interpretation and the toxic masculinity of mid-90s gangster rap, a cultural era that contained brilliant artistry but also pulled hip-hop to an unprecedented low (which was repaired largely through the retribution work of Bad Boy records’ retribution work in the period after Biggie’s murder). It’s important to note that martyrs and revolutionaries aren’t always heroes. A lot was lost to that moment and movement in music, and two decades later, if Tupac’s musical output is going to hold artistic value moving forward, there is a cultural obligation to understand that he was both victimized by it and culpable within it.
Overall: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so eager to use its protagonist’s name. Every scene, supporting characters tack “Tupac” or “Pac” onto sentence after sentence until the sound of the iconic name loses its value somehow. What’s worse is that the same blind adoration expressed in filmmaking language does even more damage than that to his legacy.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment