All Eyez On Me – Review
by Robin Browne
The Tupac Shakur biopic, All Eyez On Me, though not perfect, deserves credit on a number of fronts, starting with the fact it got made at all. As Kat Graham, who plays Tupac’s friend Jada Pinkett in the movie, said in a June 16 Rolling Stone story: “It’s so…hard to make a black biopic. It is…hard to get the money…It’s so hard to make a movie period, let alone one that features as much diversity as this film.” This highlights another reason the film deserves credit. The film’s cast actually isn’t that diverse. It’s a film about a black man starring only black people, with some white secondary characters. However, that’s as far as the black and white goes, as the film is full of complex, flawed, and human, characters – including Tupac.
Some very influential critics disagree with me. The film has been panned by a number of sources, including David Fear in his June 16 Rolling Stone magazine review, Tupac Shakur Does Not Get the Biopic He Deserves. Fear says the film is “content to superficially scroll through hits and misses and headlines without diving deeper.” By “deeper” he means explaining how Tupac came to have his unique mix of aggression and sensitivity.
Fear seems to forget one key thing. The film is Tupac’s story as told by him to a TV journalist (or filmmaker, it’s not clear). The reporter is visiting him in a maximum-security prison in 1995, where he’s serving time for sexual assault – of which the film implies he’s innocent.
That means it’s Tupac’s version of his life. As such, it shows mostly the good stuff, but not only that. We see the women’s groups who critiqued his lyrics as violently sexist, set against scenes of him partying and waking up with groups of half-naked women (they’re apparently mute too, as they say nothing). We see his friend, Jada Pinkett, confront him, amongst a group of such women, about his lyric “I f&*%^ your wife!” aimed at east coast rapper Notorious Big, a former friend who Tupac decides, has become an enemy after hearing some of Big’s lyrics he feels are directed at him. He also critiques Snoop Dog for saying Big and rap superstar Puff Daddy, also part of the east coast scene, “are his homies too”. (The battle for superiority between west coast based Death Row Records and east coast’s Bad Boy is a central theme in the film).
The film has extensive scenes with Tupac and his former Black Panther mother, played with wrenching intensity by Dunai Kurira. Kurira convincingly shows that the intensity of Tupac’s mother’s love for her children, was matched perhaps only by her hatred of those who threatened to – or did – harm them. Demetrius Shipp Jr. gives an amazing performance in the title role, helped by his uncanny resemblance to the real Tupac. The rest of the cast is also great.
Tupac’s relationship with his mother is the source of much of Tupac’s sensitivity, but also his anger, as he later sees the impact on her of a system that, she says, gives black people who threaten it, “everything you need to destroy yourself.” Later, when his mother visits him in prison after he’s convicted of sexual assault, he tells her she’s right.
“The system”, as portrayed by Ku Klux Klan-like FBI agents, police and judges, is just one of several probable enemies Tupac has at the time of his death, according to his telling. There’s also the east coast rappers and all their friends and any of the angry, black men he argues with on his way to the top. However, his critique of why the system is his enemy, shows he understood systemic racism. He recounts his mother telling him the FBI was targeting his stepfather because “he’s a threat to the established system.”, and the reporter interviewing him in prison tells him the FBI has a file on him 4000 pages long (to which he says, “Only 4000?”). That Tupac had become a threat at the highest level is clear when none other than U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle is shown attacking Tupac’s lyrics in a TV interview.
The film succeeds in dealing with one of the main challenges of true, tragic stories: the fact the audience knows the ending. It does so by showing dramatic moments from Tupac’s life that shape his world view. That includes the hits, misses and headlines that Rolling Stone critic David Fear mentioned, but also many other private moments that never made headlines. We see the well publicized fight that led to a young boy getting shot in the crossfire, but also scenes from the brutal way Death Row Records co-founder, Suge Knight, enforced loyalty within the company which he frequently says is “more than a label. It’s a family.” On that note, another point in the movie’s favor is the presence of several characters like Suge Knight: black men who founded hugely successful businesses selling a product born in the ‘hood.
The film weaves in a number of performances of Tupac hits visually presented to look like authentic MTV videos, one of many ways the film deftly intertwines the real with the fictional.
The film is 2 hours 20 minutes, which felt about 20 minutes too long (I found myself wanting it to just get to the part where he gets shot). The film shows Tupac working with four successive record companies on his way to stardom. They could cut five minutes from each of the four stories. In fact, they could cut from each of those four parts and replace them with more explanation of the reasons behind the East/West rap feud. After all, no one knows who killed Tupac and young black men are still dying today much like he did in 1996.
One thing is clear from the film: Tupac would want the story of his life, as told by him, to help make things better.
About the writer
Robin Browne is an African-Canadian communications professional and father of two boys. He lives in Ottawa.