For many in the community, the unsolved death of Tupac Shakur remains a tender spot. Some claim to know why and suspect who, but nothing can be proved. He was gunned down. He died at the age of 25 years old. His legacy lives, and such is the power of the artist whose spirit refuses to shoutout anything but the truth.
In the starring role of “All Eyez on Me” is Demetrius Shipp Jr., who bears an uncanny resemblance and delivers a measured performance that nails the hip-hop prodigy perfectly.
He’s lean and neatly shaven, with the signature tattoos and the complicated stare that made Tupac hypnotic. When Tupac stepped into the movie world, his charisma was easily evident, devouring every scene. If not for the mounting problems in his personal life, it was predicted that the gifted young man was going places in Hollywood.
In retrospect the slain rapper’s life played out like a drama—filled with bullets, bloodshed, vendettas and the lure of wealth. On one hand the artist became an activist. On the other hand, the artist was a thug and proud of that status, boasted in lyrics and highlighted in media interviews.
Director Benny Boom is a visionary storyteller and someone to keep a sharp eye on. There is no fat on his frame. He delivered a mesmerizing drama, filled with the contradictions that were lifted from Tupac’s life. Yes, Tupac was messy, but his spirit and purpose were clear.
“All Eyez on Me” is accurate, with details provided by those who knew Tupac. It is dripping with the rich atmosphere of a world most of us will never receive an invitation to visit, and thus it captures or recaptures a sliver of time. We are witness to artistic greatness. His words spring alive. His spirit is not contained. Tupac rides again—“only God can judge me now”—his lyrics when he first uttered a prediction but now an undeniable truth.
Shipp shoulders this film. His likeness helps, but it’s his performance that brings the emotional depth. This is especially true in Act One, when we are watching him as a grinning high-school student who has a love of theater and earns the leading role in “Hamlet.” His mother is a former Black Panther, Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), and her lessons are poured into him. She teaches him to educate himself. To read.,To write and to understand the consistent and continual injustices done by the white establishment to Black and Brown people.
Afeni herself is consumed by rage and turns to crack. All that education and no self-control. It’s no wonder that Tupac grows up wild. He’s surrounded by injustice, and here it’s illustrated with his arrest, in Oakland, for jaywalking. Every time he’s wounded he stands up and he writes about what he sees and feels. The United States of America helped shape him into his iconic status—the red, white and blue created Tupac Shakur.
The movie begins inside the Clinton Correctional Facility, in 1995, with an interview with Tupac explaining his life to a reporter (Hill Harper).
The movie flashes back to his New York childhood, his uncomfortable move to Baltimore and Oakland and his friendship with Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham). His rise to stardom began with joining the Digital Underground. Hollywood took notice when he appeared in “Juice,” which was followed by music videos, including his most remembered, “Brenda’s Got a Baby.”
Tupac went to jail because of rape charges when allegations were brought against him and his
entourage. He was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse. When he goes to prison in the film, the film finds its core. Behind bars it seems that the world forgot about him. Crammed between a rock and a hard place, he reaches out to Marion “Suge” Knight (Dominic L. Santana) and signs a deal with the entrepreneur of Death Row Records, a man whose reputation for violence is well established. Suge isn’t playing at being a gangsta—he is what he is.
Actor Santana brilliantly captures the mogul’s strength and his pathos for making money, and Act Two and Three, in which Tupac reaches the pinnacle of his success, belong to him.
It was because of Suge that Tupac made “California Love” and was introduced to the players that were part of Death Row, a collection of morally ambiguous back-stabbers and oily sycophants. On the music side, Tupac connected with the genius of Dr. Dre (Harold House Moore) and Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis with Snoop’s voice dubbed in). The truth about all music deals is complicated and here, again, Tupac is still trapped. He has a three-album contract and no wiggle room.
The truth in hindsight is so clear, and it’s his mother that highlighted it the best: This white man’s system hands you/us/him the tools to destroy ourselves. It’s always been the modus operandi of the white establishment to divide the people to conquer them, and that’s what happened with the friendship with Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) and the eruption of the fabled east coast-west coast rap war.
“All Eyez on Me” does not fall into the trap of a conspiracy theory story; instead it gives us a peek into the empire of Suge Knight, which sealed Tupac’s fate.
Tupac’s spirit lives on.