As a lifelong fan of Tupac Shakur I’ve been waiting with baited breath for what seemed like an eternity for a biopic to be made. We’ve seen countless documentaries about his life and conspiracy theories regarding his death, but a biopic has long been overdue. Once I read that a biopic was actually in the works I felt a mixture of excitement and intrigue, and when the project was finally given the green light I was eager to find out as much information as possible about how the filmmakers were planning on executing such a difficult task. My feeling of excitement was quickly followed by concern however, due to the film’s pre-production stage being as turbulent as any movie I can ever remember.
L.T. Hutton, a well known Hip Hop and R&B producer, who had never produced a movie of any kind was the main man pulling the strings. A few different directors were in the frame to direct but each time a name was mentioned the project seemed to hit a stumbling block. Rumours were also circulating that Tupac’s Mother, Afeni Shakur, was not supportive of the film and hadn’t given permission to L.T. Hutton and Morgan Creek for the movie to go ahead.
I was left scratching my head, who was actually going to step-up and direct this film? Was it ever going to see the light of day? Step forward Benny Boom. Boom, a well-respected music video director within the Hip-Hop and R&B world, was given the task of directing a biopic about one of the most iconic figures in modern day history. The cold hard facts were as follows – Boom had only two feature-films under his belt and both of them were straight-to-DVD releases. Concerned much? You’ve got L.T. Hutton who’s never produced a film before steering the ship and a director whose previous credits include S.W.A.T. Firefight – it doesn’t fill you with a lot of confidence does it?
Afeni sadly passed away due to a heart attack in 2016 but Hutton and co. pushed forward and allegedly made the film without her or anyone in the immediate Shakur family giving them their blessing. I commend L.T. Hutton for managing to get such a monumental film released, but you do have to question who’s ultimately profiting out of all this - because it’s certainly not the Shakur family.
Still, I tried to keep an open-mind and bought my cinema ticket for the opening night at the earliest opportunity. After the opening 5 or so minutes you straight away get the gist as to how the film is going unfold. The first half of the film consists of a series of flashbacks while Tupac is being interviewed in prison about his life up until getting locked up. Tupac comes across subdued during the early parts of the interview which is surprising as he was always very animated, but as a result the opening segment felt flat.
All Eyez On Me invested all of its time visiting the key stages of his life – a more factual and voyeuristic look back on the turning points as we the public know it, but without the intimacy of how these moments effected him as a person at such a young age while juggling a career in music and film. We hardly see Tupac’s raw anger, we don’t get a feel for his sense of humour nor do we see Tupac’s paranoia that was evident during his final days - we just see the trials and tribulations of the rapper and actor. This is by no means a reflection of Demetrius Shipp Jr who played Tupac, but more down to the script being somewhat limited.
What was it like being inside Tupac’s inner circle during the last year of his life? Who did he really trust? What did he have planned in the years ahead? A lot of questions about who Tupac really was are left unanswered; in fact, they weren’t even touched upon. At times this was a film version of his Wikipedia page, a 30second scene in 1992, a quick-fire scene in 1993, then we fast-forward in the blink of an eye back to the prison interview. As stand-alone scenes they’re all nicely put together and some of the acting is superb, but when seen in the context of the overall story it just doesn’t seem to grip you. Not to say that this wasn’t entertaining, but only when Tupac signs for Death Row and leaves prison does the film feel like it’s actually moving in some kind of direction.
A prime example of Eyez’ lack of character and story development is the Jada Pinkett (played by Kat Graham) sub-plot. We see Tupac on stage performing Hamlet at the Baltimore School for the Arts early on in the film, Jada watching on in the audience clearly intrigued by what she’s seeing. The two have a brief playful chat after the performance and then that’s it, the film moves off elsewhere. We don’t see Jada again until Tupac finds out he’s moving to California, then out of no where he reads Jada a heart-felt poem about how deeply he feels for her.
The scene feels hollow, empty of the emotion we should feel for Tupac and Jada because their deep-lying friendship was never established in the run-up to this scene. If Tupac’s plutonic relationship with Jada was so important in his life then surely we need to see why? As the audience we also don’t get a feel for Tupac’s journey in trying to make it as a solo artist. There’s no struggle here, in the blink of an eye he’s part of Digital Underground and then after a meeting with Ted Field and Jimmy Iovine in the Interscope offices Brenda’s Got a Baby is released. This was a common theme throughout and evident of the difficulty in trying to squeeze in as much detail as possible but in doing so having to sacrifice a hell of a lot in how strongly the viewer can feel for the characters.
To portray a life this large accurately onscreen would require a film as majestic as The Godfather. He was our Michael Corleone—the product of an important family who learned and grew and rose to become the leader of a complex world where those closest were conspiring to kill him. That’s how big Pac’s life was. That’s how much he means to millions. More than any life in hip-hop history, Pac’s life deserves an epic film. Toure, The Daily Beast
Despite the break-neck speed of a lot of the scenes there were some real bright spots. The success of any biopic hinges on the performance and believability of the lead actor and Demetrius Shipp Jr delivered an assured and surprisingly strong performance playing the role of Tupac. Just to put this into context, this was Shipp’s first role of any kind and despite being a dead-ringer for Tupac he possessed little to no acting experience at all before being cast in Eyez. A short crash-course in acting was all he had under his belt before production went into full swing. At times he must have felt like he had the entire world on his shoulders. Despite his inexperience coupled with the somewhat restrictive script, Shipp Jr. can walk away with his head held high and if he can ever get away from the inevitable “oh look there’s the Tupac guy” tag then a bright future in Hollywood beckons. I had goose bumps at some of the live performances, they were that good.
For the most part the rest of the acting was excellent. One of the highlights are the scenes between Tupac and his Mother Afeni. Danai Gurira (star of The Walking Dead) gave a powerful performance as Afeni Shakur with her at times out-shining all others around her. Eyez did a nice job of conveying the ups and downs of Tupac and Afeni’s relationship, you get a sense of the close spiritual bond that existed between the two of them despite Tupac’s turbulent lifestyle and Afeni’s drug addiction.
Another highlight in Eyez is the relationship between Tupac and his first manager Atron Gregory (played by Keith Robinson). Their final scene together where Tupac tells Atron that he’s no longer needed as his manager is one of the few moments where the script is allowed to breathe and the audience has the opportunity to feel what’s actually going on. You feel for Atron as he’s being pushed aside after nurturing Tupac throughout his early days in the music industry. Not a lot of words are needed, they both know that signing to Death Row and Suge Knight is a big mistake, ”Be careful Pac” warns Atron ominously...
Other prominent performances of note included Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett-Smith - she sounds just like the real Jada. Dominic Santana gave the most credible performance so far as the infamous Death Row Records boss Marion “Suge” Knight and despite not getting much screen time, Chris Clarke amusingly nailed the role of Digital Underground front man Shock G. Corey Hardrict also did a fine job playing friend-turned-foe Nigel/Haitian Jack.
The same can’t be said for Jamal Woolard who once again portrayed the Notorious B.I.G. Woolard seemed bright-eyed and energised in Notorious (2009) but looks disinterested and uninspired here. Surprisingly the Tupac vs. Biggie beef wasn’t focused on that much with it coming across as a petty squabble, rather than the bitter and heated rivalry (at least from Tupac’s side) as portrayed in the media in 95’ and 96’. Whether this was simply because Boom and Hutton again couldn’t find enough time to develop this sub-plot, or maybe it wasn’t as a big a deal as we all first thought?
As the film progresses we get to see Tupac recording some of his famous hits, “California Love”, “2 of Amerikkaz Most Wanted”, “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” and although we don’t get to see his tireless work ethic in the studio these scenes remind us of the great artist he was, capped off with an exhilarating performance at the House of Blues – one of Tupac’s most legendary concerts while at the peak of his power.
A big disappointment however was the final scene in Las Vegas. Yes, we all know how it’s going to end but it all seemed a bit rushed and only some tense moments between Tupac and his girlfriend Kidada (daughter of legendary music producer Quincy Jones) in their hotel room saved it from being a bit of a disaster. We don’t really feel any suspense or anguish here. Before we know it Tupac is lying barely conscious on the concrete with gospel music playing in the background (where did that come from?) and then that’s it, the movie is over. For those who don’t know, Tupac didn’t actually die on the street like Eyez suggested, but an entire week later in hospital.
I left the cinema with mixed emotions. On one hand I was happy to see my idol portrayed on screen and it was thrilling seeing some of his most infamous moments unfold in front of me on the big screen. On the other I was left feeling a bit deflated. Deflated at the fact that this film only scratched the surface of who Tupac was as a person, deflated that we didn’t learn anything new from one of the world’s most charismatic figures, taken well before his time.
In all fairness to the filmmakers Tupac’s life was so eventful that it’s near enough impossible to fit all of it into a feature-film and bearing that in mind the movie was always going to be flawed no matter who made it. They would’ve been better off creating a 5-part Netflix series rather than trying to cram everything into a couple of hours. It’s an entertaining film no doubt, but the film fell short in capturing Tupac’s most captivating element – his personality.
Tupac’s life being played out on screen won’t end here though. More projects are currently in the works and John Singleton remains adamant that one day he’ll tell his story of Tupac. I for one hope this isn’t the case. Tupac’s life, much like other music greats such as Elvis, John Lennon and Bob Marley, is an open book. His true story and what he stood for is out there for anyone who’s searching for more, and if All Eyez On Me is anything then let’s hope it’s a starting point for new fans to find out who the real Tupac Amaru Shakur was.
“I love ‘Pac to death man but let that man rest.” - Scarface, 2017.
Review by Alex Lawton @visualvybes