Originally posted June 19th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
It’s almost fascinating, especially in today’s age of more readily available information, that creators of biographical dramas still sometimes include historical inaccuracies, often as integral plot points or poetic, character-defining moments. Surely they must know what they’re doing and that they risk the story of their chosen subject’s credibility, at least in part. That seems to be the biggest headline surrounding Benny Boom’s Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me, with many people close to Shakur during his life speaking out against the film.
In particular, Jada Pinkett Smith, once-classmate of Shakur’s at the Baltimore School for the Arts and long-time friend, calling the film “deeply hurtful” as it pertained to her relationship with him. John Singleton, who worked with Tupac on his film Poetic Justice, has shared his frustrations with the movie, and even 50 Cent has recently unleashed a barrage of criticisms, namely that it’s “trash.”
Understandably, though also sadly, these headlines have managed to distract from the fact that a mainstream Hollywood film with a cast more diverse than most not only outperformed box office expectations, but also, for a time, was beating Wonder Woman for the weekend’s number two slot. Yes, Wonder Woman has been out for a while and major drop-offs are expected in any competitive summer season, but when franchise films reign supreme, it’s difficult to imagine many new offerings topping them – except for the next popular franchise film.
Though All Eyez on Me’s debut was impressive, it’ll have a hard time keeping up with a summer schedule that has yet to make way for films like Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk. It’s a crying shame that the picture not only fails to live up to Tupac’s towering legacy, but also seems bafflingly uninterested in trying.
The first hour and a half or so of the film uses a series of interviews conducted with Tupac while he was incarcerated as a framing device to explore significant – or supposedly significant, in one scene of goodbye poetry – moments throughout his upbringing and early music career that shaped his perspective and propelled him to the heights he later achieved. Perhaps all there is to say about this chunk of the narrative, or even the film as a whole, is that the players are convincing enough with the material they have. Demetrius Shipp Jr. remains impressive in his big break as the late rapper, and Danai Gurira is properly explosive as his mother, Afeni, but they and many other members of the supporting cast are far more invested in paying tribute to Shakur than any of the film’s screenwriters.
The narrative construction for All Eyez on Me in and of itself is wholly bizarre. Instead of having a character-driven focus that supports the rest of the plot’s important junctions, the film feels content loosely stitching together various moments from Tupac’s life that may halfway remind us of his stature, but do nothing to communicate any thematic connection or general significance in his life as a living icon. With stale dialogue that forsakes gravity for over-simplicity, scenes just come across as insipid dramatizations that would be best left for a made-for-television E! documentary and fail to progress Tupac as a character, much less give him any depth.
Every time it seems as though the screenplay has found a bit of focus, a sliver of anything interesting the audience can latch onto as the story comes to its inevitable conclusion, such as Tupac’s tenuous relationships with his mother or Suge Knight, the writers deceive us by quickly moving on to the next scene without so much as scratching at the surface to give the story and its subjects tangible weight. It’s as though Boom and Co. were too timid to approach the intricacies behind Tupac as the poet, artist, activist, revolutionary and, above all else, human, and instead could only embrace the basic image of Pac that has long been on a pedestal since his murder, loading this “greatest hits collection” some have called the story with superficial nuance.
With an overlong script so languid and uninspired, it does a disservice to Shakur’s brilliance and intellectual power and charisma by only providing a by-the-numbers dramatic account. As an artist, Tupac was innovative in the raw, hard-hitting, down-to-earth message he helped spread about social injustices and his experiences growing up, so it’s painfully ironic that a film about his life wouldn’t at least try to be similarly fresh or filled with creative vitality. Moments are defined by their brevity and hollowness in importance, dynamism and thematic complexity, standing at odds with the image of the man the filmmakers were so concerned with scantily revering rather than genuinely honoring.
Just maybe, All Eyez on Me will be forgotten enough in time so that there may be a more captivating tale to tell about an artist that hasn’t been, and will never be forgotten. For now, we shall have to wait until this film fades away into box office obscurity when the fifth Transformers film takes over. It’s saddening that’s what we might choose to hope for a film about perhaps that greatest rapper of all time, but Tupac never minced words in his lyrics or with his public persona, and neither should we.