HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME
We Deserve a Far Better Tupac Film Than the Toothless ‘All Eyez on Me’
A new biopic of the legendary rapper, starring Demetrius Shipp Jr., is now in theaters. And while Shipp looks the part, that’s about all that this neutered movie has going for it.
If there is a Christ figure in the hip-hop universe then it’s obviously Tupac. He was conceived in prison and born to nothing, rose to become a leader of men, at a young age died for our sins, and in death became even more powerful. Pac articulated nothing short of a new way to live: a mixture of sharp political awareness, blunt thuggishness and bold audacity that many have emulated since his passing.
There are a whole lot of rappers out there who have carved entire careers out of pretending to be Pac. As Jesus is the central figure in the Christian world, so is Pac in modern hip-hop. He connects so many of the big strands of the culture, bringing together hip-hop’s Black Power roots, Pan-Africanism, thug fetishization, celebrity worship, gang affiliations, intense mother-son relationships, impact of drug abuse and the prison experience and gun violence and yet, I find the story of Pac’s life even more compelling than his music. He blazed through this world like a comet, here for a short time and incinerating everything in his path. The last three years of his life, from 1993 to 1996, from his sexual assault trial to his tragic murder, resembled the most extraordinary movie ever. He survived getting shot, went to prison, was rescued by the most notorious record label owner in the industry, joined the baddest label in the game—forming a music superteam alongside Dre and Snoop, helped power the biggest beef in hip-hop history, and then was shot down on the street, leaving behind countless conspiracy theories and a truckload of music. During those last three years of his life, shocking news involving Pac seemed to arrive weekly. It truly was all eyes on him.
To portray a life this large accurately onscreen would require a film as majestic as The Godfather. He was our Michael Corleone—the product of an important family who learned and grew and rose to become the leader of a complex world where those closest were conspiring to kill him. That’s how big Pac’s life was. That’s how much he means to millions. More than any life in hip-hop history, Pac’s life deserves an epic film.
But we don’t live in a world where Hollywood values Pac’s life enough to give him the film he deserves.
Director Benny Boom’s Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me tries to give Pac some historical context by starting on his mother and the Panthers but it can’t escape the Wikipediaization of its subject that so many Hollywood biopics fall into. The film doesn’t take Pac seriously enough to move beyond a shallow presentation of events as opposed to a deeper understanding of who he was. Demetrius Shipp does a fine job of mimicking Pac, but shouldn’t the acting do more? Yes, Shipp looks like him and gets his expressions and mannerisms down, but shouldn’t acting bring out some essential truth about the character? Shouldn’t it tell a deeper story and illuminate who the person was?
I covered Pac’s 1994 sexual assault trial for The Village Voice and interviewed him several times. I remember him as a man who beamed with power—a man brimming with ideas and knowledge and confidence and energy. He was dynamic and voluble, dominating every room he was in.
At one pre-trial hearing, Pac was in the witness box and suddenly launched into a speech about how everyone in the courtroom was being paid to be there—everyone but him. It was why, he said, he couldn’t trust any of us. I was one of several reporters outside the courtroom in the media beehives surrounding him as he gave magnificent speeches about government, movements, the Panthers, and more. He was utterly brilliant, intelligent and luminescent. The movie doesn’t capture this. It’s dispiriting to hear Jada Pinkett Smith, a character in the movie and real-life close friend of Pac, tweet that her portrayal is grossly inaccurate. That damages the movie’s sense of authenticity, which it’s already sorely lacking. But there’s something deeper missing here: the emotional truth of Pac’s power of brilliance.
But authenticity—or accuracy—in music biopics is so often limited. The audience’s desire to see a film that tells the whole true story of their hero almost never matches up with the needs of the hero’s surviving family members who don’t want that story told. But if the family controls the music rights, then they’re probably going to get what they want. Making a great film about a real musician who had a wild and complex life is hard when the family is squeamish about important stories or details that they find embarrassing. So it’s almost inevitable that All Eyez on Me, which was produced by Pac’s family, presents the iconic MC as a cursed man; one that has trouble follow him, and who is unambiguously innocent of the sexual assault charge he was convicted of. But part of why we love lives like Pac’s is because they’re messy. If the messiness can’t be shown, with all its fascinating and troubling contradictions, then the film can’t be nearly as grand as the life.