All Eyez on Me (USA 2017)
It is exceedingly rare for me to turn off a movie before it is over. In 2015, I did it with one, the terrible Noah Baumbach film Mistress America, quite literally the only movie I’ve ever left the theater before it finished. In 2016 I don’t think I did with any. This year, the Tupac Shakur biography All Eyez on Me gets that distinction.
It is virtually impossible to be of Generation X, have a taste for music and not have an opinion regarding Tupac and Biggie, arguably the two greatest rappers who ever lived. I’ve always come down on the side of Biggie, in large part because of his much-imitated-never-equalled flow and his economic use of every syllable he uttered while recording. That said, that two remarkable talents were murdered within six months of each other and that both of the murders remain unsolved is one of the sad facts of the 1990s rap wars (Chris Rock’s best cut regards Shakur’s murder, which happened on the Las Vegas strip the same night as a Tyson fight yet remains unsolved to this day).
All Eyez on Me, clocks in at a staggering 139 minutes, lost me within 5 minutes of its start, and after 90 minutes I’d had enough. Demeterius Shipp Jr. looks exactly like Shakur, but that is where the similarities end. He plays the man as politically-engaged beta male and I think Shakur would be rolling in his grave if he saw how his life was interpreted in this insipid hagiography that not only paints a thin, two-dimensional picture of a complicated man, yet somehow in doing so makes him appear weak. Shakur was a larger than life character and his music and especially his videos advertised a wanton hedonist, a raging womanizer and a quite frankly a tattooed degenerate thug – Shakur getting THUG LIFE tattooed across his torso is lightly addressed in the film, but one of the reasons Biggie is considered the GOAT was his refusal to beclown himself, something Shakur seemed to relish.
The film comically paints all white people as evil and Tupac as misunderstood. Whether it’s white cops, white music executives (and one very Jewish music exec being played by an actor as Anglo as me) or just white people in general, they are quick to drop the “N-word” as they dehumanize the black people around them. The film is structured as an interview between Interviewer (the character’s name, just as in Jackie) and Tupac while he serves time in prison for inappropriate touching. The Interviewer does take Tupac to task for his poor decision-making, but it’s set up in such a way that every critique is countered with the film showing the noble Tupac falling victim time and time again to a misunderstanding.
Furthermore, the film offers apologies on behalf of Tupac where none are needed. In a scene at the offices of Interscope, the white exec and Jewish execs call Tupac to task for Brenda’s Got a Baby, one of the darkest stories ever told in a genre that is notorious for telling dark stories about ghetto life. The execs are concerned that a song about a 12 year old girl who is molested, gets pregnant, has a baby and is ultimately murdered is simply too vivid for popular consumption. Interscope in the 1990s was famous for signing highly controversial acts across genres – songs like Brenda’s Got a Baby were likely the honey that drew the flies.
Tupac’s story deserves better than this. The Biggie biopic Notorious was not particularly good, but is presented its subject fairly – he was obscenely talented to the point that to this day no one has emerged to challenge his reputation for flow, but as the film demonstrates his street persona – which was true – was layered within a man who was extremely sensitive and had a way with words that was truly poetic. Biggie is played in both films by Jamal Woodard, who looks and sounds like a genetic clone of Biggie to a point that’s almost unsettling. As a writer who takes the craft seriously and a hardcore wordsmith, it’s is hard to overstate how much respect I have for what Biggie was able to do, often at the drop of a hat improvisationally. He was a flawed but talented man, something that no doubt applies to Shakur.
Shakur had world-class talent, but it was in many ways wasted – for my generation, the worst stereotypes about young, black men can be found in video after video produced in support of Tupac’s songs. He stated openly that he wanted to represent the young, black male, the problems he faced, the issues he faced, his wants and needs and so forth, yet the image he projected wasn’t a complex one, but a stereotyped caricature of a clown, and instead of tackling this head-on, the film goes to absurd lengths to make a caricature that simply doesn’t add up.
It is in Shakur’s roles in film that I think paint the better picture of the man than this film or even his music. In John Singleton’s grossly underrated film Poetic Justice (starring Shakur and Janet Jackson), we get a simple, touching story about a long trip in a mail truck between a depressed hairdresser (Jackson) and a philosophically-grounded postal worker (Shakur). The film addresses so many of the same issues presented in All Eyez on Me, but does so in manners both subtle and explicit while avoiding the ridiculous stereotypes and didactic framing of All Eyez on Me. As a man who loves film and music equally, I much preferred Shakur’s acting abilities – his future in film had no limits beyond those he imposed on himself.
It is a tragedy that Tupac Shakur was murdered at 25. For all of my issues with the image he chose to project through his music, I recognize how talented, intelligent and engaged he was, a wonderful balance of nature and nurture, and had he lived to see middle age, he would have been a powerful force within both the black community and the larger American conversation. His life and its remembrance deserved so much better than this miserable film.