By Stephanie Shonekan, Art, Music, and Pop Culture Contributing Editor
Not since Ray has a biopic done justice to a beloved African American artist. As a genre, the musical biopic is challenging because it has to tell the story of an artist’s life and her/his art, keeping a careful balance between both. The biopic must stay true to the life and times of the individual against the backdrop of a historical and cultural context. More than that, a biopic has the burden of satisfying the voracious needs of a loyal fan base for whom this story means so much. Simply put, it must be told right.
A specific impact of the African American biopic is that it is often the only way that some audiences will ever encounter the music, the musician, and the culture. The cinematic version of the artist’s story provides an excellent opportunity to reach other people, create new fans, give the artist another life in popular culture, and provide a better understanding of a culture that is unfamiliar or misunderstood by so many.
So with the approach of All Eyez On Me – the biopic that would tell the story of the incredible life and work of Tupac Shakur – the excitement among fans, spectators, and speculators was palpable. There is perhaps no hip hop artist as mythical and problematic as Tupac, and there was also a lot of apprehension that this film would be done right. His complicated identity was layered and contradictory. He was both the son of a Black Panther and the associate of hip hop mogul/puppeteer Suge Knight.
— Pure Movies (@puremovies) July 14, 2017
Tupac was an artist that straddled that divide between commercialism and activism. Although his discography is replete with songs that satisfy the stereotypes of the gangsta rap sub-genre, there were also songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” “Changes,” and of course, “Dear Mama,” that told stories about African American life in the 1990s. As a result of Tupac’s nimble ability to serve both these cultural aspects, Tupac attracted all kinds of fans, those who cared about hip hop as a socially conscious instrument and those who enjoyed the beats and rhymes to party and dance.
So anticipation for this film was ripe, with the lofty expectation that the story be done right, like Ray (2004), the outstanding cinematic portrayal of another beloved American artist. As Ray Charles, Jamie Fox achieved the gait, voice, smile, and distinct personality of the R&B legend. Director Taylor Hackford found a way to capture the complicated life of Charles, not shying away from his challenges as a womanizer and a drug addict. The film also adeptly presented Ray’s relationship with his music. Ray deservedly won all kinds of awards.
But, a musical biopic is risky. Every film that came after Ray fell short of the mark. 50 Cent was over gangsterized in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005); Executive Producer P Diddy came through as the hero in Biggie Smalls’ biopic Notorious (2009); Etta James was over-romanticized and hyper-sexualized in Cadillac Records (2008); and Get on Up (2014) failed to capture the complexity of James Brown and his music. The slippery slope downhill seemed inevitable for Black biopics until Straight Outta Compton was released in 2015. This film successfully captured the varied lives and personalities of the iconic West Coast hip hop group NWA with sensitivity and boldness. Director F. Gary Gray reminded us why this motley crew—Dr. Dre, Eazy E., Snoop, Ice Cube, Ren, and DJ Yella—inspired us to dig deeply for knowledge on urban life in the late 80s and early 90s. The quality of Compton came very close to Ray.
Over the years, the anticipation for a Tupac film rose to a feverish pitch. As both a fan and a professor of ethnomusicology, I eagerly awaited a biopic that would successfully capture the life and musical artistry of Tupac. I’ve taught all of the films mentioned above in one class or another, and with the exception of Ray (always a hit in my “Soul and Country Music and Culture” class) each of these films leaves my students and me wanting more. We want these films to shed light and revelations on both the artist and the music; and ultimately, to add to the overall narrative of African American music, history and culture.
— Vibe Magazine (@VibeMagazine) July 13, 2017
The early reviews of All Eyez On Me were not good, thanks in part to a preemptive critique from Jada Pinkett Smith who was dissatisfied with the way her relationship with Tupac had been portrayed. My expectations, and my students’ expectations of the film, plummeted as we held out hope that it would at least be comparable to Compton. A group of us went to watch it together and two long hours later, while not completely devastated, we came out of the theater feeling unmoved.
While Demetrius Shipp, Jr. and Danai Gurira as Tupac and Afeni Shakur were outstanding, the plot and the writing were not. That night, as is my usual fashion with these highly anticipated films about black life, I posted on social media: “#AllEyezOnMe – not as bad as the rumors and reviews. Not perfect, not garbage. And Danai Gurira is lovely and talented.” That lukewarm reaction was not how I wanted to feel about this film, so I asked some die-hard fans to weigh in.
All Eyez on Me received mixed, mostly poor, reviews from everyone I asked. “[It] was a total blunder,” said Langston Collin Wilkins, my friend and fellow ethnomusicologist. “It was an episodic retelling of Tupac’s major life moments that completely failed to depict the complex experiences, emotions, and politics that informed his artistry. The filmmakers mishandled the story of one of hip hop and contemporary pop culture’s most important icons.”
A former student of mine, Shakoul Bailey, perhaps the biggest Tupac fan I know, felt the same way. Last year, he impersonated Tupac at a Mizzou student event and had the audience on their feet. “It hurts me to say this,” Shakoul said, “but this was not a good movie. Overall the actors did great, but the story, how Tupac was portrayed—and there were a lot of other issues—it just wasn’t good. Very disappointed!” For Shakoul and many others, the film’s director Benny Boom failed to deliver what they had hoped for.
Another former student, Elorm Nutakor, tracing out the legendary rivalry between Tupac and Biggie, explained, “I think a Tupac movie is difficult to do because of how much weight Tupac holds in society beyond music. Notorious worked better because Biggie’s persona does not hold the same weight…Also Notorious did a better job of discussing the East Coast/West Coast beef as manifested in 2Pac and Biggie and how the media fueled it even more so than the people involved which I felt was more honest.”
All Eyez on Me was an opportunity to present the life of a complex artist and activist, a self-proclaimed poet and “thug,” a man that had demons and vices. This was also a chance to offer a counterpoint to the evolving narrative of hip hop history and culture that has been framed by the industry and the media, hip hop historians and other films. While the industry and media have attempted to co-opt and downplay the power and potential of the genre, hip hop heads—scholars and fans alike—have maintained the importance of hip hop’s overall role as an important cultural expression. All Eyes could have added to this discourse. Perhaps we all expected too much. We will have to keep listening to Tupac’s music to capture him for ourselves. Or, if we want to see Tupac in another form, instead of seeing All Eyez, I recommend a book of Tupac’s poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete (1999).