The 2Pac biopic All Eyez on Me completes an unofficial trilogy of what we could call the Bad Boy/Death Row cinematic universe. It began with 2009’s Biggie Smalls bio Notorious and continued with NWA’s Straight Outta Compton in 2015. Too bad that, like a lot of trilogies, the third movie winds up the weakest of the bunch.
That’s because All Eyez on Me suffers through a haphazard first act that tries to speed-date the audience through Pac’s childhood and early part of his career with no real payoff. That’s coupled with director Benny Boom and the film’s producers failure to surround their overwhelmed lead, Demetrius Shipp Jr., with any sort of co-star talent.
No doubt Shipp Jr. got the part because he resembles Pac so much he looks like he was spit out of a 3-D printer. Sadly, he is left to fend for himself throughout the film, with nobody to play off, a ridiculous burden for a young actor — this is his first feature, and he has to embody an icon. The real Pac’s movies, songs, music videos, and interviews, document a charismatic, shape-shifting, soul-bearing miscreant powered by pure, uncontrollable energy. Simply put, Shipp Jr. fails to capture Pac’s multiplicity, much less portray the depth of his talent.
All Eyez on Me begins with Pac in prison for sexual abuse, retelling the details of his life to an unnamed journalist. (In real life, Kevin Powell was the writer who famously conducted the Vibe cover story interview that frame’s the film’s first half).
The decision to shape arc through prison-interview flashbacks seems meant as a device to efficiently run us through Pac’s early days. The film stumbles, though, because what this approach actually gives us is a series of events rather than an actual human being. One minute the family is getting raided by the FBI due to his mom Afeni Shakur’s (Danai Gurira) Black Panther ties. Then we’re in Baltimore, where Pac is reciting Hamlet and getting friendly with a young Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) while dealing with his mom’s drug addiction and desperately searching for male role models in a violent neighborhood.
Boom hits warp speed when Pac arrives as a teen in the Bay Area, where he’s discovered by activist/poet Leila Steinberg, signed to Digital Underground, and suddenly starring in the movie Juice, all in the span of about eight bars from “The Humpty Dance.”
There’s no time to explore these relationships nor to let them give us context for Pac’s later life, save for Pinkett (who took to Twitter to refute the accuracy of scenes involving her). These events just happen, as if they’re mere shout outs to Pac’s people. This poor pacing and all the melodramatic fade-to-black transitions give the early scenes a Lifetime Movie vibe.
Boom and his writing team (Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian) seem most concerned with getting the minutiae right for die-hard Pac fans. They prioritize frame-for-frame re-creations of Pac’s most famous interviews, videos and appearances to the detriment of any real storytelling.
Case in point: The music-video recreation for Pac’s first recorded verse on the track “Same Song” is filmed identically to the original. That’s impressive on the surface, but it serves no real purpose other than to allow Boom, a former music video director himself, to low-key flex his rap nerd attention to detail.
The film finally slows down and settles on a pace when Pac’s story catches up to that sex-abuse conviction. The build-up showcases All Eyez’s lone strength – a willingness to deal head-on with what the filmmakers try to frame as Pac’s contradictions but in reality was his hypocrisy.
They make a case that Pac wasn’t actually involved in the assault, but also effectively illustrate the severe pain inflicted on real-life victim Ayanna Jackson. They double down on Pac’s hard-headedness, his refusal to listen to advice from others, which ultimately helped lead to his conviction. It’s far from a perfect depiction of the crime (the initial encounter between Pac & Jackson plays like a crude ‘90s R&B video), but it doesn’t let Pac off the hook, either. That at least flies in the face of Straight Outta Compton’s white-washing of NWA’s misogyny and outright avoidance of Dr. Dre’s heinous assault on video show host Dee Barnes.
In the prison scenes, Shipp Jr. gets to try on the brooding, loner side of Pac’s bad attitude to mostly positive results. Shipp Jr. and Gurira also get some time to dive into the relationship that so defined Pac’s legacy. Those moments also feature the movie’s best use of song. First, when Pac is processed and then beat down by guards his first day in, the Stevie Wonder harmonica sample from “Tears” makes perfect sense. Then, as Afeni Shakur paces deliberately through the prison gate after a somber visit, the mournful “Dear Mama” bumps through the theater sound system to aching effect.
The third act sags as Boom reverts to his static history-lesson approach. We get needless back-to-back music montages of Pac in the studio with Dre & Snoop, recording the album All Eyez on Me. In a surprise move, the Pac-Biggie feud is reduced to a footnote. There’s no mention of an east coast/west coast war, only a few key references to the Bad Boy vs. Death Row beef, or Pac briefly hanging out with Biggie’s wife Faith Evans, then performing the incendiary diss track “Hit ‘Em Up” at the House of Blues.
Instead, Boom uses that time to address fan conspiracy theories surrounding Pac’s death,
in particular, the belief that Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) refused to let Pac leave Death Row to pursue his own record label. Fans have speculated for years that Knight was somehow involved in Pac’s death because of this attempted mutiny. Notorious and Straight Outta Compton rightfully portrayed Knight as a violent mad man. Here he employs champagne bottles to waterboard scheming associates. He’s also begrudgingly loyal to his roster’s biggest talent, so long as he can always manipulate a way to recoup his losses.
Comparisons between the Bad Boy/Death Row films are unavoidable. Jamal Woolard, star of Notorious, pleasantly reprises his turn as Biggie Smalls. All Eyez on Me was seemingly rushed into production once Straight Outta Compton’s huge first weekend box office was announced. For fans of early-to-mid ‘90s rap, these movies represent a validation to the importance of the era and its biggest, most polarizing stars. But it’s too bad that the most soulless of the Hollywood tributes goes to the most compelling figure of that era, a self-proclaimed hell raiser whose bleeding-heart martyrdom defined a generation of thugged out activism.