This film takes its title from one of the classic albums released by Tupac Shakur before he was shot dead in 1996. Like a comet that streaks across the sky, his life and career lit up the heavens all too briefly. The movie is an uneven docu-drama that lurches through the events and people in Tupac’s life, and attempts, half heartedly, to re-live some of his more traumatic experiences, now part of folk lore in music history. But such is the intensity with which he blazed through the prisons of racial hatred, violence and drug addiction, all woven together inextricably, that the film is watchable merely for recording it. And also for the excellent actor who portrays him, Demetrius Shipp Jr.
The film begins in his mother’s womb, when she refers to her unborn child in a speech at a ‘Black Panther’ meet. So, in a sense, militant ideology and a tradition of protest at the gross and blatant inequalities in American society, accompanied Tupac from birth to death. He was born in New York City, but his mother, Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), was forced to move to Baltimore, because she was harassed by the FBI for her political affiliations and thrown out of her home. The then FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, had described the ‘Black Panther Party’ as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country’; hyperbole no doubt, but dangerous when a man like Hoover links the demand for racial justice to what he always called communist and subversive thinking.
Shortly after, the family was forced to shift again, for reasons unexplained, to California, severely disrupting Tupac’s involvement in the arts, which he took to like a duck takes to water. Socially convivial and immensely gifted, writing poetry, quoting Shakespeare and making music was his life, but always with the shadow of race and class falling across everything creative he did. He was not able to protect his art and, at the same time, escape his environment and culture. This was his tragedy, and the tragedy of so many African American artists at the time. ‘Rebel for the Hell of it: The Life of Tupac Shakur’ by film and music critic, Armond White, is a book that defines his music and the explosive social context in which his art is both produced and received.
Likewise, the film, ‘All Eyez on Me’, does perceive that the way Tupac’s music influences its listeners and followers, is as important as the art which created it. But, unfortunately, the film lacks the cinematic craft to express the connection between the maker and the audience. Using a very dull interview based narrative style, it gives us some idea of the volatility of Tupac’s music and lifestyle, but then simply cuts to various attempts by social and political activists to curb it. Nowhere do we see or hear the listeners of the 1990s, explain why and how the music and lyrics connect so deeply, closely and personally with their own lives. This is the lacunae in the film.
The finest scene is when Tupac is about to be sentenced to jail for sexual assault, a charge he vociferously refuted all his life, saying that he had been brought up and surrounded by women and would never disrespect any one of them. The Judge, an elderly White man, is unmoved, and when Tupac is asked by him what he has to say for himself, he accuses the Judge of never looking into his eyes all through the proceedings; of never treating him as a person, as an individual to be addressed as a human being.
This scene works largely because of the skill of the man portraying him, Demetrius Shipp Jr., and also because it resonates politically as a statement on majoritarian culture anywhere in the world. Had the film better craft and imagination, it would have portrayed this music prodigy and his legacy in a more luminous light.