The only thing that inspires less confidence than a Tupac Shakur biopic made by the director behind “Dilemma” is the subtitle “the Untold Story of.” There’s a certain brazenness a studio must have to suggest it has something new to say about one of pop culture’s most canonized and analyzed figures. In fact, “the Untold Story” is exactly the billing you’d use if you don’t actually have anything to say (or if you’re about to start fictionalizing aspects of the truth, as Jada Pinkett Smith has suggested).
Both All Eyez on Me and its first teaser landed on what would’ve been Tupac’s 46th and 45th birthdays, respectively, an on-the-nose ploy that suggests the film understands the benefits of clinging to the rapper’s legacy. The film holds his mythology as self-evident, instead of something to be explained, and ends up avoiding the very basic elements of storytelling: building a narrative, writing characters who appear as a perfunctory plot devices, penning dialogue that doesn’t pull from a predictable, stereotyped black-hero template. (“Do what you want to do because I’m not in your hands, I’m in God’s hands,” Tupac, played by Demetrius Shipp, Jr, says to a judge at one point—because only God can judge him, you see.) As a result, All Eyez on Me doesn’t feel like a genuine tribute, but rather a plastification of the knotty history that’s built Tupac’s legend. It’s the equivalent of a relative presenting a box filled with fine cotton passing it off as a sweater. You’d be insulted.
Shipp himself does an admirable job of translating Tupac’s capriciousness and audacity. Still, that effort is moot in a film where everything feels like a simulacrum of itself—there’s only so much you can do when the off-camera folks aren’t doing their part. The director, Benny Boom—whose film credits include Mike Epps’ Next Day Air and a direct-to-video sequel to S.W.A.T.—brings a quickly paced style that’s presumably designed to thrill, but ends up coming off haphazard. Within minutes, we breeze through Tupac’s childhood—from his Black Panther ties to his move to California—without getting a sense of what roots him as an individual.
Characters file in and out. Shakur’s famously strong bond with his mother has been well-documented, but the film’s portrayal of her doesn’t dive below the surface. She isn’t given enough exposition to make her descent into crack addiction, or her role as Tupac’s confidante, resonate. The character development of Jada Pinkett Smith, Shakur’s lifelong friend (played by Kat Graham), suffers from similar lack of depth. She appears infrequently before giving the big “those guys are bad news, man” speech when she sees Tupac has fallen in with the villainous Death Row crew. “The man I knew wanted to use his voice to educate,” she pleads through tears. In the movie, you don’t get the sense she actually knows him that well.
This brings us to the question of what story All Eyez On Me was actually trying to tell. Was it Tupac Shakur’s fight against an oppressive system? The journey to find his voice as an essential rapper? The slow process of realizing that Suge Knight is bad news, man? The film picks up and abandons multiple strands, which makes the omissions look more egregious. The movie starts off by focusing on Tupac Shakur’s in-prison interview with a journalist (hinted as Vibe‘s Kevin Powell), so one would think Me Against the World—the classic he made before his prison sentence for first-degree sexual abuse—deserves a bit more than to be mentioned in passing. Tupac’s assault of Menace II Society director Allen Hughes isn’t hard to forget because he served a prison sentence for it, but it’s also left out.
What makes these pass-overs even more glaring is when the film decides to traffic in insane rap-game kitsch. In one scene, Tupac receives a sexual favor in the club for no apparent reason other than to show he can. (The woman, Bianca, shows up again in Tupac’s sexual abuse case, though Tupac is depicted as a saint—becoming another example of the film’s backhanded treatment of women.) In a scene of the famous 1994 robbery, one of Tupac’s assailants is played by the rapper Maino—a cameo so unexplainable that someone in my theater yelled out, “Wait. Is that… Maino?”
And there would’ve been room for kitsch if the film put due care in portraying these characters’ rich humanity. In skirting that responsibility, they’ve come out of a gold mine with only a bedazzler to show for it. All Eyez on Me can’t be cast off as simply another biopic because its subject matter is culturally wrought. There’s a sense of duty that compels people of that culture to go out and watch it. But if the filmmakers don’t really treat it with the same responsibility, then there’s no point.