Sleekly shaven-headed, with a pirate bandana, a gangsta’s dripped-in-death tattoos, and the liquid stare of an Arabian prince, Tupac Shakur was the matinee idol of hip-hop superstars: not the fiercest rapper, not the most virtuosic or visionary, but a figure of “hard” ferocity who elevated street nihilism by fusing it with a certain lovesexy bravura. For a while, he was as much a movie star as he was a rap star (and he would have been a bigger one had his legal troubles not scared off the Hollywood establishment). On some level, Tupac’s life always seemed like a movie playing out in front of you — not just the hair triggers of bloodshed, but his whole contradictory dance of activism and thuggery, commitment and celebrity.
“All Eyez on Me,” the messy, hugely flawed, but fascinating biographical drama that has now been made about him, channels those contradictions, even if it doesn’t always know what to do with them. Comprehensive but sketchy, richly atmospheric but often under-dramatized, it is not, in the end, a very good movie (there are a few scenes, like Tupac’s initial meeting with Ted Field of Interscope Records, that are embarrassingly bad). Yet it’s highly worth seeing, because in its volatility and hunger, and the hidden desperation of its violence, it captures something about the space in which Tupac Shakur lived: a place that wanted to be all about pride and power, but was really about flying over the abyss.
The film is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and considering that Tupac was only 25 years old when he was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on Sept. 7, 1996, that should be enough time to tell his story with intimacy and flow. Yet “All Eyez on Me,” directed by the music-video veteran Benny Boom, is an old-school biopic that reminds you why old-school biopics faded: It has that overly sprawling, one-thing-after-another quality that can make you feel like you’re seeing the cinematic version of a Wikipedia entry.
That said, Demetrius Shipp Jr., who plays Tupac, carries you through. He looks astonishingly like the rap star, but Shipp also fills out Tupac emotionally, showing us the smiley high-school student who prided himself on his success in the theater — we see him cast as the lead in “Hamlet” — as well as the surly, neglected adolescent who was raised by his mother, the former Black Panther Afeni Shakur, to take a never-ending stance of defiance. Afeni is played by Danai Gurira (who would have been perfect as Nina Simone), and Gurira makes her a ruthlessly intelligent analyst of the white power structure who is nevertheless consumed by a rage that has no outlet (at one point, she turns to crack).
It’s no wonder that Tupac grows up to be a militant without a cause. He can see the injustice around him, and when he’s arrested in Oakland for jaywalking (when was the last time a white person got arrested for jaywalking? Answer: never), the sadism of the police is like a nightstick to the soul. Yet each new way that he chooses to define his manhood — as a rap star; as a fighter with thug-life cred who will walk, lips snarled, into any confrontation; as a stud; as an activist leader in the new era of rap-as-racial-politics — it becomes, for him, a highly self-conscious performance. He turns into a badass outlaw hip-hop demigod who is playing the role of a badass outlaw hip-hop demigod.
There’s a facile framing device, with Tupac explaining (and defending) his life in a prison interview that takes place during the nine months he spent at the Clinton Correctional Facility in 1995. The movie than flashes back to his New York childhood, his jarring moves to Baltimore and Oakland, the close friendship he formed in his teens with Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), his shot at stardom when he was asked to join Digital Underground, his 1992 role as a stone-cold sociopath in “Juice” (a role he acted brilliantly, and that was said by some to have had an influence on his off-screen behavior), and his mesmerizing early solo videos for tracks like “Same Song” (his first lead with Digital Underground) and the scabrous social-protest rap “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” But it’s only after he goes to jail that the movie finds its footing.
“All Eyez on Me” presents the incident that resulted in rape charges that were brought against Tupac and members of his entourage (he was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse) in a way that completely exonerates him; the truth may have been murkier. Once he’s in prison, however, his life and career look like they’re in ruins. To save himself, he signs a deal with the devil: Marion “Suge” Knight, the fearsome 350-pound giant-cigar-chomping entrepreneur of Death Row Records, who enjoys a supreme distinction among the rappers and producers he employs and lords it over — he’s the only one among them who isn’t playing at being a gangsta.
Dominic L. Santana, who plays Knight, captures the underworld mogul’s self-righteous menace, and the second half of the movie, in which Shakur finds his greatest success, records his greatest song (the momentous “California Love”), and experiences his greatest existential confusion while at Death Row, is the ominous heart of “All Eyez on Me.” It’s not just that he’s surrounded by back-stabbers and glad-handers, as well as musicians like Dr. Dre (Harold House Moore, in an underwritten role) and Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis, who gets the voice but not the snakish cunning). In essence, Tupac is still in prison, trapped not just in a three-album contract but in a stance of outlaw brutishness that’s become, in his own mind, “political”: the only stance the white man will allow him.
But his mother said it best: This is really the system’s way of handing him the tools to destroy himself. Once his friendship with Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) breaks down, the fabled East Coast–West Coast rap war becomes, in the movie’s view, a violent form of tap-dancing, with Tupac and Biggie deluded into thinking that their taunts and boasts mean something.
Who killed Tupac Shakur? “All Eyez on Me” doesn’t say, but it least it spares us the soul-sapping diversion of conspiracy theory. In all likelihood, Tupac was killed in a tit-for-tat piece of gang violence that had nothing to do with the rap wars. What the movie captures is that Tupac’s absorption — through showbiz, then through the empire of Suge Knight — into the role of gangsta sociopath was the insidious illusion that sealed his fate. It was a role he relished playing, and he did it brilliantly; he convinced the toughest audience there was — himself. But the only thing about the role that was entirely real was his death.