Film Review: All Eyez on Me (USA, 2017) is not the biopic Tupac Shakur deserves

In the years leading up to release, slipping out of John Singleton’s reliable hands and finding a way to Benny Boom didn’t inspire much confidence in All Eyez On Me, the long-gestating biopic of seminal emcee Tupac Shakur. Long before Straight Outta Compton chewed up the box office charts, those inside and outside of the hip-hop community have been placing a great deal of pressure on this film and whoever would end up charge – understandably high (perhaps unrealistic) expectations that come with doing justice to one of the most beloved and important recording artists of our time.

Boom has had a long and admirable history with music videos, but hasn’t the best track record when it comes to film. That wasn’t a tell-tale sign within itself – even Hype Williams made a memorable leap to the big screen with cult-classic Belly – but surely a project seemingly pegged to follow-up the success of N.W.A’s smash-hit was best served by a more seasoned director? The result isn’t bad, but it’s far from good; let’s just say it’s more Notorious than Straight Outta Compton.

The first mistake was introducing the all-too-simple flashback framework for the first half of the film, beginning in medias res with Tupac (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) serving prison time for sexual assault charges. Quiet and subdued, the star of the film is reduced to a series of nods as he is being interviewed by an unnamed journalist (played by Hill Harper). This means we jump straight into an origin story of sorts, laying out a lot of ground to cover as we’re taken back to before ‘Pac was born, first establishing his parental situation by putting the focus on his mother, the passionate and unafraid Afeni (Danai Gurira) as an outspoken member of the Black Panthers.

From there, it’s a series of pacing issues so rapid that parts of the film feel like one big montage; an exercise in box-ticking rather than depth. This robs the biopic of necessary nuance, rushing through what seems like the most pivotal moments in ‘Pac’s story for the sake of taking a comprehensive approach to his life and death. Not only that, but it creates very few spaces for these otherwise strong actors to establish any sort of presence, and so great scenes like the ones between Shipp Jr and Kat Graham (as close friend Jada Pinkett), or ones shared with his on-screen mother, feel relatively empty and melodramatic.

On the other hand, much of this material does serve to contextualise Tupac as an artist. His time raised under the strength and compassion of his mother – in addition to his disapproval of her subsequent drug use – is one of the primary reasons he became the articulate and pragmatic emcee that gave the world classic tracks like “So Many Tears”, “Dear Mama”, and “Keep Ya Head Up”. The brilliant, but brief, scene in which ‘Pac is explaining the meaning behind “Brenda’s Got a Baby” to the white record executives, who feel it’s too explicit for release, is a perfect snapshot of not just Tupac Shakur the artist, but of the unique artistic value of hip-hop in general. And of course his eventual association with the likes of Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) and “Nigel” (no doubt a stand-in for Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant, played by Cory Hardrict) are important to portray how ‘Pac gradually shifted from the teen who, inspired by Shakespeare, once wrote a sweet and expressive poem for his best friend, to the hot-headed movie star and paranoid “gangster rapper” who would eventually be gunned down in Las Vegas shortly after inciting a brawl over a stolen chain.

Boom runs through the majority of the material as if he’s just trying to get it over and done with, only stopping to focus on some of the most contentious bits like ‘Pac’s aforementioned relationship with Nigel and how that would lead to very vague and suspicious sexual assault charges, which in turn would lead to the cataclysmic shooting at Quad Studios.

There are some odd choices made from this point. One example is Tupac hearing Biggie’s (Jamal Woolard reprising his role from Notorious) “Who Shot Ya?” in the prison yard after conviction, immediately jumping to conclusions that it must have been his former friend who had something to do with the shooting. It’s here that some seemingly random lifer walks up to Tupac and, magically knowing exactly what ‘Pac is thinking, tries to reason with him. Another example is the casting of Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis) who probably would have been fine if every word that came out of his mouth wasn’t an obvious (and poor) cut-and-paste job from the real Snoop (that or an impressionist).

There’s just too much wrong here to give much weight to the right.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Run time: 140 minutes

All Eyez on Me is now screening in cinemas across Australia.