Starring Demetrius Shipp Jr. Rated 18A
Flame out young and dramatically enough as a pop icon, and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be anointed a saint no matter how much of a screwup you might have been. As hopelessly messed up as they were in real life, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright have been unconditionally revered in death.
The big flaw of All Eyez on Me—which finds newbie Demetrius Shipp Jr. making a stunning debut as late rapper Tupac Shakur—is that it’s more of a rose-coloured-glasses love letter than a gritty Straight Outta Compton biopic. The film, directed by music-video vet Benny Boom, wants us to believe that the iconic rapper was not only a hip-hop visionary, but also goodness personified.
Shakur’s rap sheet suggests otherwise. By the time he was gunned down in Las Vegas at age 25 as part of a bicoastal hip-hop war, Shakur had been charged with various physical assaults, involved in more than one street shooting, and incarcerated for sexual assault.
In fairness, that’s all chronicled here, and Boom never sanitizes the inner-city violence that inspired much of the rapper’s art. But it’s all framed in a way that suggests Shakur wasn’t to blame for his various troubles, including, completely egregiously, the hotel rape that landed him in jail.
All Eyez on Me instead paints a complicated human being as a boyz-n-the-hood version of Robin Hood. At one point we even see him doling out bills to struggling welfare mothers.
Radiating the idealism, passion, and showmanship that made Shakur an icon, Shipp Jr. is incredible enough that we can almost forgive the movie for downplaying the more unsavoury parts of the rapper’s life. The former Target clerk is also an eerie dead ringer for Shakur; it’s almost like the 2012 hologram from Coachella returned to life. The supporting cast is just as strong, with Dominic L. Santana suitably menacing as famously scary Death Row Records founder Suge Knight.
As a history lesson, All Eyez on Me will satisfy completists, tracing Shakur from his birth to a Black Panther mom in New York to superstardom in a more or less linear, straight-ahead fashion. Director Boom is no boundary-pushing renegade—the live-performance sequences feel particularly staged and flat—but he keeps things moving along briskly, with nice touches including following Shakur’s seeming obsession with Shakespeare back to a high-school drama class.
As the movie rolls to its inevitable conclusion—that fateful night in Vegas—somehow we’re left wanting more. The brilliance of Shakur classics like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” was in the way he provided a raw and unvarnished view of American street life. The man never pretended to be a saint. Too bad All Eyez on Me treats him like one.