Everything you know about Tupac is likely wrong. Casual fans think of him as a loyal left coast soldier in hip-hop’s East Coast/West Coast war, but he actually had tremendous love and admiration for New York, where he was born and largely raised. Others cite his 1994 Manhattan shooting as the opening salvo in the coastal conflict, but forensic evidence suggests he accidentally shot himself. The internet is flooded with inaccurate, implausible scenarios for his 1996 murder in Las Vegas, which remains unsolved. In fact, ask most people about Tupac’s death and they will only half-jokingly suggest he’s still alive, Elvis-style, perhaps enjoying a Hennessy on a remote island paradise somewhere.
Tupac’s life story can’t be broken down into sound bites. He’s not strictly a gangsta rapper or a revolutionary, because he was both. He wrote some of the most powerful songs ever about black women, but he was also found guilty of sexually abusing one, named Ayanna Jackson.
For these reasons, making a watchable, substantial Hollywood movie about him should have been impossible. Music biopics tend to distill characters down to caricatures, portraying them as strictly good or evil.
You can’t do that with Tupac, which is why the new biopic All Eyez on Me had such a difficult time getting made. Some eight years in the works, it went through multiple directors and writers and, according to reports, didn’t ultimately win the respect of Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who helmed his estate until she died last year. She declined to take a producer credit, with whispers that her camp didn’t find the film “particularly accurate.”
Maybe something changed since the drafts she saw, but what’s stunning is just how accurate the final film is, much more so than could have been expected. It sometimes defers to Tupac’s versions of events — such as that he was innocent in the Jackson case, for example — but most details of his life are meticulously researched and painstakingly presented, down to the outfits he wore and the petty fights he picked. Yes, the film portrays him as a monumental talent who transcended music to become a cultural icon (which, anyway, is accurate), but it also shows every messy step along the way. Unlike most biopics, including 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, about his predecessor N.W.A, All Eyez on Me doesn’t whitewash Tupac's story. The film shows him warts and all, often opting for intense, discomforting close-ups of the warts.
Yet the reviews have been savage. It has only 22 percent "fresh" from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Many complain about the rushed first act, which indeed hits each biographical beat of his first 20 years without so much as pausing to take a breath. (Look, the FBI’s harassing his family! Now he’s hugging Jada Pinkett! Now he's singing “The Humpty Dance.”) But the rest of the film more than makes up for that in its measured, dramatic turns and a nuanced portrayal of Tupac's tragic final five years.
The New York Times’ review is clueless, starting off by calling it a “fictionalized film biography,” when in fact it’s more accurate than most articles that have been written about him. The Globe and Mail laments that it “trades on the worst clichés of the hip-hop world … drugs, bling and a preoccupation with women’s butts,” which is absurd and untrue. (Tupac twice criticizes the use of crack and cocaine, for starters.) Indiewire is unhappy with the lack of “period-appropriate tracks” not penned by Tupac, of which there are at least three, from Public Enemy, Too Short and E-40, all of them incredibly relevant to the periods and locations portrayed. It’s the critics, not the filmmakers, who haven’t done their homework.
It’s hard to fault them too much, however, since said homework is tough to complete. Tupac had the energy and ideas of 10 people, constantly discussing new causes, creating different forms of art and partying with new friends. In the same day he might meet with big-time record executives, obscure musical talents and gang members, all of them equally important in his world.
But since he’s not here to tell his story, we’re forced to rely on others’ accounts to understand the pivotal moments of his life. And many them are deceased as well, such as his friend-turned-rival Notorious B.I.G. The most controversial figure in his life, Suge Knight, the mercurial owner of Tupac’s label, isn’t talking, at least partly because he’s in jail on murder charges.
As with anyone who’s rich, famous and dead, those close to Tupac have had varying motivations in how he’s portrayed, including his mother, who was dismayed when her son got his Thug Life tattoo and may not have wanted the brutal events of his life played up in the film.
Then there was his oft-cheated-on girlfriend Kidada Jones and his backing group the Outlawz, who also doubled as one of his security teams. Like many others in his camp — including Knight and the Las Vegas police themselves — they have been criticized for not doing everything they could to bring his killer to justice. Finally, Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter to criticize her portrayal in the film; it’s easy to sympathize with her if she offered her account of her time with Tupac to the filmmakers, but it’s unclear if that’s the case. (Incidentally, she never responded to my interview request for my book on Tupac.)
On the whole, All Eyez on Me should be celebrated for its forthright and accurate-as-possible portrayal of its protagonist. Especially since it comes on the heels of a quarter-century of dishonest reporting about the man.
Incidents including his shooting of a pair of off-duty Atlanta cops in 1993 led to countless media portrayals of him as a trigger-happy thug. (Why was this unfair? The charges against him were dropped, and a black motorist credited Tupac’s actions with saving his life.) Vice President Dan Quayle’s criticism of his lyrics glorifying cop killing led to a piling-on that took many years to abate.
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That said, in recent years the pendulum has swung perhaps too far in the other direction, with his deification on countless internet fan sites.
Tupac wasn’t a saint. He was complicated, as we all are. And All Eyez on Me gets this. When a journalist interviewing him in prison tries calling him out for political prophesizing in one song and glorifying partying in another, Tupac easily dismisses him. It’s all part of who I am, he says. After his mother decries the white power structure for giving him the tools he needs for self-destruction, Tupac blames himself. “I fell for it,” he says.
The film’s director, Benny Boom, is best known for music videos, but he’s done something remarkable here: He’s taken a legend and made him into a man. Most movies do the opposite. Instead, Boom’s work is a crowd pleaser that doubles as a historical document.
Ben Westhoff is a former L.A. Weekly music editor and the author of Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, now out in paperback.