Sunday, June 18, 2017

All Eyez on Me

2.5/4

Starring: Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Guirira, Hill Harper, Dominic L. Santana, Annie Illonzeh, Keith Robinson, Kat Graham

Rated R for Language and Drug Use Throughout, Violence, Some Nudity and Sexuality

Tupac Shakur is too fascinating a man and too important a figure not to be the subject of a biopic.  Few can deny the impact he had on American culture, almost singlehandedly inventing the gangsta rap genre and giving voice to an entire community.  This should have been made with A-list talent and be an awards contender.  But for whatever reason, the powers that be decided to use a pedestrian screenplay and a director-for-hire.  This would have been a perfect vehicle for The Hughes Brothers, who directed "Menace II Society" (a film in which, ironically, Shakur was given a role but left after getting into a physical altercation with one of the directors).

The difference between a good biopic like "Schindler's List" and a mediocre one like this is that the good ones are character studies.  What happens to them is important, sure, but the narrative events should only be allowed to happen because they must, considering the characters personalities or because they challenge them in some way.  Anyone interested in a certain person's life story can go to Wikipedia.  Audiences go to their biographies to see who they were as a person.

The biggest of many problems with this film is that it's too ambitious.  Director Benny Boon tries to incorporate everything that happened in Tupac's life rather than the forces that drove him.  Tupac's (Shipp Jr.) relationships with his mother Afeni (Guirira), friend and agent Atron (Robinson), and rap mogul Suge Knight (Santana) are left half-baked.  The result makes "All Eyez on Me" feel less like a real film than a trailer for one.

Ironically, the one that fares the worst from this approach is Tupac himself.  All the forces swirling around him are external.  He's a pawn in his own life.  Considering how strong-willed, intelligent and articulate the man was, such a decision is disingenuous.  It's a shame, really, since newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr does a solid job playing the magnetic artist.  the precious few moments when the movie slows down enough to allow his personality to shine through are his best.  We can see Tupac's tenderness, humor, integrity and intelligence.  He freely quotes poetry and has a deep love for Shakespeare, for example.

Both his mother Afini and Death Row Records owner Suge Knight played tremendous roles in his life (the latter of which being implicated in Shakur's murder).  But their relationships with the late rapper are poorly explained, limiting their power.  Dominic L. Santana is quite effective as Knight, the imposing man who runs his record label like a mafia.  He's truly menacing.

Perhaps the large number of screenwriters is to blame, since the script and the direction are all over the place and much of it makes little sense, like Tupac's infamous rape case (the film clearly takes his version of the story) and his decision to sign with Death Row Records despite Knight's notoriety.

There's some good stuff in "All Eyez on Me," there's no denying that.  The performances are effective and Tupac, for all the shortcomings in how he is presented on screen, remains a fascinating individual.  But in the end, there are just too many problems for me to recommend it outright.  Tupac deserved better.

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