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Review: All Eyez on Me (2017)

All Eyez on Me (2017)

Directed by: Benny Boom

Premise: A biography of rapper and actor Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.). The film follows Shakur from his early life and his complicated relationship with his mother (Danai Gurira) to the heights of success as an entertainer.

What Works: All Eyez on Me is exceptionally well cast especially in the selection of newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac Shakur. Shipp’s physical resemblance to Shakur is striking but the actor also conveys the intelligence and swagger that made the rapper a star. The supporting cast includes Danai Gurira as Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur. The story casts Afeni in several lights—as a political revolutionary, as a drug addict, and as a mother—and Gurira merges those various qualities into a single complex human being. Afeni Shakur’s flaws parallel Tupac’s and the mother-son relationship frequently offers the best dramatic scenes in the movie. Dominic L. Santana is cast as Suge Knight. He isn’t as frightening as R. Marcos Taylor’s portrayal in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton but Santana and the filmmakers envision Suge Knight as more than a psychopath. As portrayed in All Eyez on Me, Knight was as business savvy as he was violent and he turned Death Row Records into a commercial and cultural juggernaut. This film also sees the return of actor Jamal Woolard to the role of the Notorious B.I.G. after previously playing the rapper in 2009’s Notorious. Woolard is quite good in the part and like Shipp he has a striking physical resemblance to his real life counterpart.

What Doesn’t: All Eyez on Me is part of an ongoing project to build a myth around Tupac Shakur as a cultural commentator like early Bob Dylan and late John Lennon. But the truth of the matter is more fraught and complex than Shakur’s apologists would suggest. Socially conscious songs like “To Live and Die in LA” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby” were offset by vapid commercial hits like “California Love” as well as the misogynistic lyrics of songs like “All Bout U.” For a while it appears as though All Eyez on Me might delve into this contradiction in Shakur’s identity; he wanted to be a political revolutionary and he spoke about himself that way but Shakur was also enthralled by the materialism of financial success which he achieved by exploiting violent stereotypes of young black men. That contradiction is on display in All Eyez on Me but not in a way that suggests the filmmakers had any grasp of it. The film’s regard for women matches the misogyny of Shakur’s lyrics; women are visualized as sex objects and Shakur’s sexual abuse conviction is especially poorly handled. The film’s superficial treatment of the contradictions in Shakur’s life are symptomatic of a deeper flaw of All Eyez on Me. It doesn’t appear that the filmmakers had a clear vision of who Shakur was and what they wanted to say about him. The plot is a succession of historical anecdotes. It doesn’t have a narrative shape and it’s not building toward anything. That’s evidenced in the film’s clumsy handling of Shakur’s relationships with his mother, with Biggie, and with actress Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham). Any one of these subplots could form the basis of a compelling drama but the filmmakers botch all of them. Aside from bad writing, the dramatic ineptness of All Eyez on Me is the fault of director Benny Boom who is incapable of staging dramatic scenes effectively. The film never gets beyond the obvious and its case for Shakur as an artistic revolutionary is unsubstantiated. If anything, All Eyez on Me actually diminishes Shakur. The film implicitly suggests that he was petty and violent while it also marginalizes his skill as a musician and entertainer. Shakur was one of the giants of hip-hop but All Eyez on Me doesn’t convey his musical talent.

Bottom Line: All Eyez on Me squanders a great cast in a movie that is quite terrible. Far from making the case for Tupac Shakur as an important contemporary artist, All Eyez on Me actually damages Shakur’s legacy while telling a clumsy and superficial story.

Episode: #653 (June 25, 2017)