The legendary career of Tupac Shakur has been covered in everything from Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story to Notorious. He even turned up in 2015’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. While numerous actors and documentaries have chronicled his life and career, ALL EYEZ ON ME is the first fictional account that attempts to take a holistic view of the rapper’s struggle, and ultimately his tragic death.
To the tune of ‘So Many Tears,’ director Benny Boom’s film opens on Tupac (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) being interviewed in prison by a journalist (Hill Harper). Within this framework, we follow his life from being raised by his mother (Danai Gurira), a fierce member of the Black Panther Party, his constant moving, joining the Digital Underground (complete with ‘The Humpty Dance’), breaking into the industry, and infamous life in the public spotlight.
There’s a fair bit of assumed knowledge and shorthand in ALL EYEZ ON ME, and if it wasn’t for Notorious being so fresh in our minds, some of the references may have sailed on by. Shakur’s entry into the music industry is presented as a fait accompli, as the film barrels through the early parts of his life. Which is entirely fair in some ways, given that the back half of the film covers his relationship with Biggie Smalls, his success under Death Row records, a rape charge and prison sentence, and several successful albums.
Like many biopics, keys moments are chosen to represent an era. One lens that screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian have chosen is the relationship between Shakur and the women in his life. There’s the troubled one with his mother, a recovering substance abuser who spent much of their early life in paranoia. There’s also future star Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), acting as a kind of conscious figure in the narrative. As he does in parallel stories, the heavyweight producer Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) is both a mentor and terrifying authority figure.
Yet at some point the interview structure is abandoned, leaving us with a fair bit of narrative ground yet to cover following his release from prison. It’s mostly positive material too, but it begins to drift away from the ferocity of the first half. That said, we get far more context to the ‘East Coast v West Coast’ feud than other films, including a wonderful moment in which Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis) is forced to put his tail between his legs for saying “It’s all love.”
Newcomer Shipp Jr., whose father worked with Shakur on The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, is excellent as Shakur. Completely inhabiting the role, we get a sense of the intellect that Shakur was, in addition to be a positive influence on his various charities and communities. Santana is also a massive presence in the film, but it’s Gurira who gives an award-worthy performance as Shakur’s mother, alternating between Black Panther, recovering addict, and doting mother.
In the film’s coda, footage of the real Shakur states “Only God can judge me.” ALL EYEZ ON ME comes down far more positively on the side of 2Pac, but for the most part it lets the music do most of the talking. Occasionally heavy-handed, often superficial, Boom’s film is still a nice capsule of a brief but impactful career.