When white people try to rap, the results can be anything from financially profitable (Beastie Boys, Eminem) to politely ignored – except say, you are Vanilla Ice, and you borrow the opening for your one hit (“Ice Ice Baby’) from another white dude (David Bowie), and then you may be talking lawsuit. But if you’re black, you don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation. In the nineties, musicians like Tupac Shakur, the subject of the new “All Eyez On Me,” was one of those artists that teens in my era listened to and imitated – although the ones I knew were unfamiliar with most of the topics firsthand – the closest we ever got to having guns in my high school was when someone got in trouble (really) for bringing in a water pistol. It also didn’t hurt that prissy public figures like Dan Quayle and Tipper Gore kept having hysterics over what a bad influence it was. Talk about a badge of honor for those concerned.
The biopic stars Demetrius Shipp Jr. who certainly looks and acts the part, although the film itself is, like many have already noted, similar to a made-for-TV movie. It runs for over two hours and tries mightily to pack as much about Tupac as it can in that time. To be fair, even though Tupac was killed when he was only 25, he had already established himself as an actor, as well as musician, activist and record label owner, perhaps a lot of the material included was too tempting to leave on the cutting room floor. But as my expectations were not sky high, overall I (and the rest of my audience) was absorbed in the film from start to finish – as a character in last year’s “Straight Outta Compton,” quipped, “I like Afterschool Specials.”
Born in 1971, the son of Black Panther activists (his mother was in jail while pregnant with him), Demetrius vows to be just like them when he grows up. After enrolling in a performing arts school in New York where he studies acting as a teen (Shakespeare plays a prominent role in the film), he’s forced to move to California with his sister while his single mom (Danai Gurira) who has substance abuse issues, tries to sort herself out. Her story – from addiction to redemption – plays like a TV movie, but she’s also the moral compass for her son and a lifelong inspiration. Meanwhile, Demetrius meets lifelong friend, Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) while on the West Coast, who helps keep him honest through his career, and gets a chance to tour with the Digital Underground. He also gets acclaim for his role in “Juice,” signs with Interscope Records and begins to get acquainted with the lifestyle that, as his mother reminds him, will give him “all the tools to destroy himself.”
She is prophetic as for most of the movie, it seems like Demetrius can barely poke his head out the recording studio room before he’s swept up in various trouble, including but not limited to substance abuse, run-ins with many authority figures, violence and accusations of sexual assault. Eventually, Demetrius does wind up in jail, where he tells his story to a sympathetic journalist (Hill Harper), gets some guidance from a “lifer,” and while still in and unable to post bail, watches his new album go gold. When he comes out, he signs with Biggie (Jamal Woolard) and Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) who manage the Death Row label – and whose “family”relationship with its artists occasionally edges into “Godfather”-style territory. But sadly, just as things seem to be going well for Demetrius in both his personal and professional life, he is the victim of a fatal shooting, a murder which has yet to this day to be solved.
Watching the movie, I was reminded of another nineties musician, Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide at the height of his fame in the era, and who once wrote “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” As the movie reminds us in the end, Tupac was only 25 when he achieved fame in several areas – and today, he would be forty if he had lived. Imagine what he could have achieved if his life had not been so cruelly ended when it had.