There’s always a risk when it comes to capturing the lives of our icons in dramatic form. In contrast to the stage where there’s more room for creative licence, with film and TV there’s a lot more scrutiny. We want clones, we want full historical accuracy, we want all the truths to be told.
When the news broke that there was going to be a Tupac biopic, I know I wasn’t alone when I eye-rolled in suspicion. So far when it comes to black musical biopics the only ones that have passed mass approval is 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It the story of Tina & Ike Turner lead by Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne – although not look-a-likes they acted their arses off and have thus gone down in history. The other film is The Five Heartbeats (1991) cheesy and dramatic as hell, I have no idea if the story was accurate or whether the actors cast looked like the band members they were assigned to play. Regardless TFH has secured its position as a protected black movie classic.
In more recent years Straight Outta Compton (2015) was an unexpected box office smash hit. F. Gary Gray’s depiction of the influential rap group NWA surpassed expectations from casting to narrative. Controversies from the colour graded casting call for women – dark-skinned women lower ranked, to the glossing over of Dr Dre’s alleged abusive relationship with Michel’le aside, SOC is a brilliant film, it captured the best bits your average audience wants from a biopic, and helped us forget Notorious (2009) which didn’t hit the mark. The story of Christopher ‘Biggie Smalls’ Wallace, Tupac’s eventual nemesis let us down. Highly anticipated, Notorious was accused of portraying the much loved slain rapper’s legacy as a little too fluffy and innocent and definitely went down the TV movie route. Such is the problem of a lot of biopics.
As loved as Tupac is, it was always going to be important to cast the right actor, first and foremost. In Notorious, Tupac was played by definite non-clone Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker; Avengers) which was such a weird choice. In Straight Outta Compton the pains taken to cast the main actors were also applied to casting Tupac so much so he was visually played by newcomer Marcc Rose who could act like him but not sound like him, so Darris Love (The Secret World of Alec Mack) was hired to do his rapping voice. Demetrius Shipp Jr. an upcoming actor plays Tupac in All Eyez On Me and does a convincing job in a film that’s up and down in its brilliance.
The synopsis: All Eyez On Me is the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur from his early days in New York to his status as one of the world’s most recognized and influential voices. Against all odds, Shakur’s raw talent, powerful lyrics and revolutionary mindset establish him as a cultural icon whose legacy continues to grow long after his death.
Titled after Tupac’s fourth album, All Eyez On Me attempts to capture the life of Tupac in just over 2hrs. If you’re a deep Tupac fan you may feel like you learn nothing new, and may wish for more. Shipp does manage to present a warm and innocent side to Tupac. We’re also treated to those filler in bits we don’t get to ‘see’ of our favourite celebrities. The conversations they may have at home round a dinner table. Or what they were like in school. All Eyez On Me reminds us that Tupac went to high school, he actually took classes and according to the film wrote heartfelt poetry for his best friend Jada Pinkett (before she became Mrs Smith). Through Tupac’s memories of growing up we learn about his tumultuous upbringing. His mother Afeni Shakur effortlessly played by Danai Gurira (Walking Dead) is the Black Panther revolutionary who defiantly attempts to raise her two children, whilst fighting the cause and a drug addiction. We see moments where Tupac is conflicted with the pressures of being the man of the house because of his mother’s ‘issues’, whilst wanting to fulfil his dreams of becoming a successful rapper.
The series of flashbacks told through interviews Tupac gave whilst serving time in 1995 at the Clinton Correctional Facility, show us important moments in Tupac’s life when life changing decisions are made for him like when he and his family are moved between Baltimore and Oakland, to when he decides to join Digital Underground which kick started his rap career, to his acting debut in Juice (1992) where he played ‘Bishop‘ – the character that went down as one of the baddest black characters in our film history; which stoked Tupac’s interest in acting and, some say, sealed his ‘gangster‘ alter ego – the one we saw spitting at cameras and getting into fights etc. We also get to see bits of Tupac’s conflict being your everyday rapper rapping about bitches, hoes and violence to highlighting socio-politic issues, notably with tracks like Brenda’s Got a Baby and Keep Ya Head Up.
But even though we see all this, the film takes a while to know where it wants to go, and which side of Tupac it wants you to get on board with. At times being a little paint by numbers in trying to get as much covered as possible. But, Tupac was the stereotypical Gemini – devil and angel, battling two personalities. Maybe it makes sense that to make a film about him this way was always going to be erratic. Up until Tupac gets out of prison and the film moves away from him telling his back story, to actually living it do things start to line up and get back to a more linear controlled narrative.
We see Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) save him from prison and the mismanagement of his money (it was difficult to restrain myself from screaming NO DON’T SIGN TO DEATH ROW!) … We also see how Tupac’s relationship with Biggie developed – Jamal Woolard reprising his Notorious ‘Biggie‘ for this movie. This film framing their eventual fall out as a misunderstanding that went too far resulting in the East Coast / West Coast beef we of age lived through and the ending we all know. Though no clarity is given as to who was really behind Tupac’s murder, his death is presented as the result of disgruntled gang members with a grudge, rather than the Diddy, Biggie, Snoop conspiracy theories.
For me as a fan who thought she knew everything about Tupac, there were little moments I was reminded of that I’d either forgotten or didn’t know at all. For instance Tupac getting beaten by cops for jay walking added to his simmering rage. A child being shot and killed after Tupac got into an argument with a disgruntled bystander after which, the guilt weighed on his shoulders and influenced the political side of his music (along with his Black Panther infused upbringing). That he allowed his money and contracts to be mismanaged (I’d always assumed Tupac was clued up). His marriage to Keisha Morris and then subsequent engagement to Quincy Jones’ daughter Kidada Jones who was in the hotel with Tupac the night he died… When reading the back story of how Tupac met Keisha in the real world, it seems the film took that narrative and instead used it to tell how he met Kidada!?
Another thread which sort of gets glossed over, is the rape case Tupac served time for. The accuser renamed as ‘Briana’ is played by Erica Pinkett and fully presented as a conniving gold-digger hoe type who set Tupac up, as has been the legend. The real accuser Ayanna Jackson has her own version of accounts available online which, of course, present a different version of accounts which don’t excuse Tupac the way the film does. I suppose in a biopic wanting us to celebrate an icon’s legacy to do an about turn and paint him as a rapist… wouldn’t make sense. (This is not to give opinion whether Tupac was guilty or not).
Jada Pinkett played by Kat Graham (Vampire Diaries) was probably my least favourite casting. That said, Graham didn’t do a bad job, at all. She’s good, though alongside his mother Afeni, Jada is presented as Tupac’s moral compass throughout the film and although through the characters Pinkett-Smith plays in her real life acting choices from Stoney in Set it Off, and Lena in A Different World, to being the mother of Willow and Jaden, and wife of the loveable Will it’s not far fetched that she would be Tupac’s moment of normal, however in All Eyez On Me her screen time is reduced to ‘MESSAGE‘ like pop ups. I wanted to see more into this relationships that both Tupac and Jada held so dear.
(Since the time of writing this review Jada Pinkett-Smith has voiced her disapproval of her portrayal in All Eyez On Me and had discounted many of the scenes between Shipp and Graham as simply untrue – read here)
There are clips on YouTube of Tupac talking about Donald Trump, the greed of America and the tools black need to improve their position back in 1992!!! He was a prophet, an activist, an artist, a political leader, a challenger of the establishment, with this in mind, Tupac’s life story would be better captured via a gritty independent film that could challenge Tupac’s complexities in a way a commercial film can’t. Or as a documentary similar in style to the Oscar-winning O.J.: Simpson Made In America or Oscar nominated, I Am Not Your Negro.
All this said, All Eyez On Me is an enjoyable watch. There are some great musical moments which will have fans rapping along. Also seeing situations we’ve only read about being acted out help give some sort of context to who we think Tupac was. Some genius cameos along with defining moments in hip hop history being marked out, add to the feel-good. The film is good enough that you will get swept up in the story, caught up enough to feel emotional at the unavoidable inevitable ending.
(Oscar-winning British Caribbean director Steve McQueen is apparently working on a Tupac documentary as you read).
All Eyez On Me comes to UK cinemas Friday June 30th 2017