All Eyez on Me and all the images you see in this review are owned by Summit Entertainment
Directed by Benny Boom
If there’s one thing that we know Hollywood is good at it’s driving a good idea into the ground, and with the record breaking success of Straight Outta Compton, imitators were bound to pop up to try and ride its coattails. Now that’s not to say that piggybacking off the success of one film is necessarily a bad thing; especially when the film being made is good enough to deserve the attention it wouldn’t otherwise get by following in a successful movie’s wake. I know nothing about Tupac Shakur, but from what I understand he’s just as influential in the world of hip hop as NWA was in their day which makes his story ripe for adaptation. Does this movie manage to live outside the shadow of its most obvious influence and stand on its own as a great biopic, or will this fail to find an identity outside a Straight Outta Compton cash in? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the life of Lesane Parish Crooks, also known as Tupac Amaru Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr), who rose to prominence as a rapper, actor, and black liberation advocate in the early and mid-1990’s. Starting out from a young boy, he saw the horrors that institutionalized racism inflicted on his community and his own family as his mother Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira) and step father Mutulu Shakur (Jamie Hector) were prominent figures in The Black Panthers Party. After growing up in Baltimore where he met Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) who remained a lifelong friend, he was eventually forced to move to California which is where he took off as a rapper and became part of the Digital Underground which is where he started to branch out as a solo artist and make a name for himself in the wider public. Of course, being a huge success comes with its own caveats and Tupac has to face a corrupt criminal justice system, disloyal sycophants who want to suck him dry, and even his own personal demons which are brought to the forefront once he becomes a household name and a superstar. Does this retelling of the life of the legendary rapper manage to capture all the nuances of the man behind the headlines? What can this man’s story tell us about how broken the system is even to this day? If this movie is anything to go by, was the dude even a human being or simply a demi-god walking among mere mortals?
This is one of the hard ones, people. Not only was this movie CLEARLY not made for me, it’s so inconsistent in what it does that it’s hard to even get a bead on WHAT it wants to be in the first place. In the first half I wasn’t really getting it but could tell how much this all meant to the filmmakers and presumably the audience who are fans of Tupac, so I was trying to be forgiving and managed to find a few things that I liked. Things take a REALLY bad turn at the halfway mark though and it never really recovers after that; devolving into boring and somewhat confusing Pablum about people bucking up to each other but nothing of real significance happening. If we want to look at it strictly in terms of film making, it’s absolutely a worse film than Straight Outta Compton with less talent in front of and behind the camera, as well as really shitty editing and a script that even for a biopic is all over the place. The only thing that kept me from dismissing it at first was just how much passion I could see emanating from everyone in the production to TRY and make this a good movie which is something that I can appreciate, but once we get into why Tupac was sent to jail and the unfocused narrative surrounding Death Row Records, I just couldn’t defend it any longer. Maybe for its target audience, the genuine good qualities will overcome its faults. For me though, there’s just not enough there to excuse some of the really poor decision this movie makes when trying to bring this man’s story to the big screen.
Let’s start with the first half which I feel works much better than anything else. It’s not great. It’s OKAY, but there’s too much jumping around without any real sense of flow to the narrative and the framing device of this being an interview he’s having while in prison (I have no idea if the journalist he’s talking to is ACTUALLY someone who interviewed him in prison or just a device for this film) feels clunky and is merely there to try and smooth over how fractured the whole thing is. With Straight Outta Compton, there was a VERY strong sense of flow and structure to the first half of their story which goes to show how well the writers, director, and editors worked together in all the stages of production. Here, it feels like they shot a few hours’ worth of footage hitting on all the highlights of Tupac’s life but without any sense of direction which lead to a compromised edit that trims away pretty much all the context for what we’re seeing on screen and they threw in the framing device as a way to try and tie it all together. I still don’t know what Tupac was doing in that park where the kid was shot; nor who any of his crew was that was backing him up there. I don’t know how he got into rapping once he made it to California or ever who he and his sister were staying with at the time. Hell, we go from him arriving in California watching someone get stabbed to death (HIS VERY FIRST DAY THERE) and then less than five minutes later he’s doing The Humpty Dance on stage.
Despite all that though, there were two things that kept me going in that first half. First, the movie would speechify rather often, particularly whenever Tupac’s mom spoke, and… I honestly can’t really disagree with anything they were saying! The movie takes a VERY militant stand when it comes to black oppression and police violence and makes no bones about sitting you down, stopping the movie, and telling it right to your face whenever it can get away with it. On the one hand, it’s INCREDIBLY cheesy and obvious the way that the movie conveys this information to us (there’s this one FBI agent who has to be THE WORST undercover agent ever), but it kind of charmed me with just how much it cared about getting this info about police brutality, oppression through the court system, and how the FBI keeps tabs on ANY prominent black figure, across to its audience. The other thing that I liked about this part of the movie, which honestly ties in the first part, is just how much everyone on this project was straight up in love with Tupac and how much of a Messianic figure they portrayed him to be. I don’t know about the man himself, what he was like, or even if his music was any good, but it was very interesting in an auteur theory sense to try and get into the minds of those behind the camera who were just so damn happy to be making this movie. It’s not often that people get fifty million dollars to just gush about their hero for two hours, and because he died so young, the myth that’s built up around him has only intensified now that we have a generation of people who grew up with his work but never had that Kill Your Heroes moment where they had to accept him as a PERSON instead of a legend. That’s a fascinating aspect surrounding the man’s life, and I think this movie (probably unintentionally so) did a great job of bringing that across.
Unfortunately, that’s the last of the positive things I have to say about this movie as we reach the halfway point where the film gets into Tupac’s sexual assault case. Whether or not something like that disqualifies him as being a GOOD person worth defending is ultimately up to each and every one of us to determine individually, but what we CANNOT do is pretend to know details that we do not. The only people who we can say for certain knew what happened that night was Tupac and the victim, so this movie PRETENDING to know that it DID NOT HAPPEN (we see exactly what happened that night and there’s zero indication that we’re watching an unreliable narrative) and exonerate Tupac completely is utter bullshit, and while I cannot speak for victims of sexual assault, I can’t imagine this being seen as anything but a slap in the face for a group of people who society already tells us are liars and duplicitous. According to RAINN, over sixty percent of rapes are not reported to the police, and only about two percent of the ones that ARE reported lead to a conviction, so this movie perpetuating the myth that rape victims are liars is absolutely despicable. Not only that, but the movie goes further to imply that victims of rape are ALSO tools of an oppressive criminal justice system as a way to keep black men down. There’s no doubt that the government has mechanisms that are designed to target black people specifically and that the people in this country live and benefit in a sea of racial injustice (a jury just acquitted the cop who shot Philando Castile to death without provocation), but this is simply not the fucking case when it comes to sexual assault and rape. Is there an argument to be had that black men get MUCH more severe punishments for their crimes than white men who do the same? Sure, but this movie squanders any right it has to make that case when it portrays the victim as a gold digging stalker looking to cash in on Shakur’s fame as well as punish him when he rejects her. It’s sadly the other side of the coin when it comes to the Messianic portrayal that I found so interesting earlier on in the movie. It’s sometimes hard to believe that people who you idolize and meant so much to you can be capable of great evil, but ignoring what happened or downright lying about it (in this case, lying about KNOWING what happened) is not how we should try to resolve this kind of dissonance thinking about our heroes.
The movie just takes a nose dive after that, and maybe it’s mostly due to how much the sexual assault case bothered me, but it just seemed like all the flaws that I was willing to somewhat overlook earlier were turned up to eleven. There are so many characters that are introduced at that point (both in the prison and at Death Row Records once he gets out) which have almost no bearing on the plot and never get enough screen time for me to even remember who they are. I know that Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight were there, but everyone else is a total mystery to me, as is the whole beef between that group of people and the guys on the east coast, of which I’m only aware of two people. The keep mentioning that Biggie Smalls is a big part of this beef, but he barely shows up in the second half after having a somewhat prominent role in the first half, and supposedly Puffy is in this damn movie but I couldn’t tell you where he is in it and I only remember him being mentioned several times, though I’m not even sure what role he even played in all this West Coast/East Coast drama. Tupac ends up being a much more passive figure in his own story at this point compared to how much focus and agency he had in the first half, and since the new characters weren’t really endearing themselves to me, I just couldn’t find something to grab on to and ended up tuning out a lot of the noise until we got to the ending. As far as that is portrayed, I guess it’s fine mostly due to it being EXTREMELY cheesy and felt like for a minute there we were getting back to what made the first half work for me as much as it did. Other than that though, the entire third act is just one giant snooze fest that I’m sure someone in the know about all this would get a kick out of, but felt like watching a Fantasy Football Draft or something else that is overly esoteric to those on the outside looking in.
Straight Outta Compton was one of my favorite films of 2015 because it did what any great biopic does which is to give you an interesting and cohesive picture of the subject matter and to dig down into what made them influential enough to justify their story being told. This movie tries mightily but fails spectacularly as the whole production comes off like an amateur job by a bunch of fans rather than something done by professional filmmakers and storytellers. To a certain extent, there is a charm to the devotion the filmmakers have to its subject matter and the message they want to have, but it’s not enough to compensate for the shortcoming in the production and the extremely tone deaf moments peppered throughout. It MIGHT be worth checking out at some point, especially for Tupac fans, but there’s a much better biopic to be made about this person and hopefully we’ll get that one eventually. Don’t forget, we had to suffer through an Ashton Kutcher led Steve Jobs biopic before Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin gave us a proper one. Heck, maybe this movie will be bad enough to convince Tupac to come out of hiding and HE’LL be the one to direct the good movie!