All Eyez on Me

There is a shot somewhere in the middle of All Eyez on Me, the biographical dramatization of the life and death of Tupac Shakur, that goes as evidence toward the feeling that this is never anything but a dramatization. Just as the so-called "rap prophet," who revolutionized and helped to popularize the phenomenon of "angry hip-hop," is about to record the second verse of a track on which he is a guest artist, director Benny Boom's camera shifts into slow-motion for, seemingly, no reason. It's not until the film is over that the reason for the stylistic choice becomes clear.

Here is a film that wants simply to hold Shakur in reverie nearly two-and-a-half hours (a runtime that feels twice as long as it is through an apparent refusal on editor Joel Cox' part to say when). We get the expected biographical elements of Shakur's story, but there isn't any life to those elements. It's a litany of sequences - some of which are narrated by way of a lazy framing device - that are vaguely connected because of a screenplay (by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian) that wants to play out as an outline of a prominent historical figure in recent pop culture.

There is no doubting the legacy of Shakur, whose prolific career spanned nine years - from the early days of corporate legwork for producers in 1987 to the possibility of an expanding entertainment empire cut short by gunfire in September 1996. The film makes it very clear that, at the time of his death, Shakur's output was phenomenal, and the fact of his young age (25) just amplifies the sense that here was a full life, marred though it was by violence and the consequences of early fame.

The Shakur of the film, played in an eerie impersonation by Demetrius Shipp Jr., doesn't come off as a sympathetic figure. We receive fleeting insight into his childhood, an upbringing that was molded by a stepfather (played by Jamie Hector) who was arrested on behalf of his activities with the Black Panther group and a mother (played by Danai Gurira) who believed wholeheartedly in her husband's philosophies. This informs a life later led in constant distrust of a political system rigged against him, as exemplified in the lyrics of his music. His first break comes with Leila Steinberg (Lauren Cohan), a producer who discovers him during a poetry slam.

While narrating this all to a TV personality (played by Hill Harper in a succession of sequences that tell us exactly what the film then shows us), we learn about the next steps of Shakur's life, from his friendship with the similarly doomed Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard, reprising a role he played in 2009's Notorious) that turned into a rivalry, his apprenticeship under the ruthless Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) within Death Row Records, and his various relationships to Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), who would later, of course, famously marry another popular rapper-turned-actor of the era, and Kadida Jones (Annie Ilonzeh), whose family was royalty in the music industry and to whom Shakur was engaged to be married at the time of his death.

The film, sharing a title with the final album that would be released while Shakur was alive, rushes through these events and papers over several more of them, such as the significance the acronym "THUG LIFE" would come to represent to him and his vision for the lower-class neighborhoods of urban America and the various philosophical turf wars that would ultimately lead to a cycle of violence of which Shakur was hardly the only casualty. The director and screenwriters are only interested in the general facts of Shakur's life, and even those ultimately run their course once we get the gist.

Through an imprecision of filmmaking (The movie offers a version of rap musician Snoop Dogg that is almost positively voiced by Snoop Dogg himself, for instance, and the backdrop of a city in one shot is laughably just a matte painting), the film offers the portrait of an artist that feels only as if it's and celebration. There is no denying that Shakur's life was riddled with hardship, some of his own making, but even the worst elements of his life (the shooting of a couple of racist cops and, rather egregiously, a rape charge) are means to an end here. All Eyez on Me is lazy and, worse, surprisingly irresponsible for a biographical picture about such a galvanizing figure.

Film Information

Demetrius Shipp Jr. (Tupac Shakur), Danai Gurira (Afeni Shakur), Kat Graham (Jada Pinkett), Jamal Woolard (Biggie Smalls), Dominic L. Santana (Suge Knight), Annie Ilonzeh (Kidada Jones), Lauren Cohan (Leila Steinberg).

Directed by Benny Boom and written by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian.

Rated R (language/drug use throughout, violence, nudity, sexuality).

139 minutes.

Released on June 16, 2017.

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