When I heard that legendary hip-hop artist and social activist Tupac Shakur was to be the subject of a biopic, following the box-office success of Straight Outta Compton, it seemed like Hollywood had finally realized that hip-hop could be at the forefront of cinema as well as of music. With the likes of 50 Cent, Biggie Smalls, and Eminem already having their own movies, I was ecstatic that Tupac’s story was coming to the silver screen.
All Eyez on Me director Benny Boom had an impossible task: to tell “the untold story” of one of the greatest, most famous hip-hop artists ever in two and a half hours, giving longtime fans a fulfilling depiction of their hero while entertaining newcomers. Stepping into the theater as a student of hip-hop, I was disappointed after fifteen minutes. The entire narrative is framed by one of the iconic interviews filmed while Tupac was in jail—an interview that was broadcast nationally in Tupac’s prime and is easily found online.
The son of a Black Panther, Tupac moved from New York to Maryland and attended art school, where he began developing a love of poetry, acting, and rap music. He was taught to speak his mind and never hide his truth. I did like the brief history of Pac’s childhood, but it felt like it could have gone deeper, and on the film’s opening weekend, Jada Pinkett Smith—one of Tupac’s closest friends growing up—ripped the film apart on Twitter, saying that it was completely inaccurate, especially about their relationship.
Still, I gave Boom the benefit of the doubt for skimming over Tupac’s childhood, holding onto hope that the story of his adult life would be the untold story I was hungry to see. Unfortunately, there was nothing special about the next two hours, either. It was all a quick overview of what any mainstream fan would already know. I could string together a rough version of the movie with YouTube clips, and I noted several times when the actor portraying Tupac, Demetrius Shipp Jr., was just imitating interviews that were all over the Internet.
One of the best things about this film is that Shipp looks exactly like Tupac. Exactly. If you just watched the trailer, you’d think this was an Oscar-worthy performance, but the actual film runs into several roadblocks. This is the actor’s first movie ever, and there’s a lot more to bringing someone back to life than looking like him. Shipp and Boom fell short in capturing who Tupac was.
The film has other distasteful aspects, such as the real Snoop Dogg’s voice being dubbed over that of Jarrett Ellis, the novice actor who plays him. It almost resembled an old kung fu flick badly dubbed into English. And Suge Knight is made to seem like a savior to Tupac—a friendly neighborhood businessman and accountant who might get a little grumpy if you cross him. No. This was Suge Knight, one of the most notorious leaders of the West Coast hip-hop movement, who fueled the fire of the East Coast-West Coast beef war that took the lives of two great artists: Biggie Smalls and Tupac (spoiler alert: he dies at the end).
Leaving the theater, I felt cheated. I thought I was going to learn more about one of hip-hop’s heroes, beyond what has already been portrayed in the media. If we were going to learn about Tupac the artist and Tupac the activist, there should have been a major focus on his THUG Life philosophy, which not only turned a negative into a positive but was also part of an underground movement to promote peace within rival gang communities. THUG Life was the mantra that Tupac spread across the mainstream, empowering black and underrepresented communities to seek more out of life than what was allotted to them.
There are many other aspects of Tupac’s life that should have been more of a focus, but instead, one of the most anticipated movies of the summer turned out as a superficial overview of things we already knew. If you are new to hip-hop, this movie will catch you up on the main bullet points of one of the titans of the genre’s golden age, but it falls short in terms of music, narrative, and truth. Tupac Amaru Shakur deserved better.