All Eyez on Me, the new Tupac Shakur biopic hitting theaters Friday, doesn't give any part of the late rapper's life short shrift. It's a biographical movie in the most traditional sense, covering every inch of Shakur's story, as played by newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. The narrative starts when he's just a fetus in mother Afeni Shakur's womb and extends all the way through his 1996 death at age 25.
This was an intentional choice on director Benny Boom's part. While some biopics choose to focus on a specific slice of the subject's life (think 2012's Lincoln and 2014's Selma), the prolific music video director wanted to cast the widest possible net.
"We wanted to give the human side of Pac," Boom said in an interview with Mic ahead of the film's release. "We wanted to give you a film that showed his life all the way until he passed."
Telling such a sprawling tale requires covering the bitter and the better — the bitter, in Shakur's case, includes the allegations of sexual assault against him in 1993. Boom and writers Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian opt to believe Shakur's account of the events and present them as fact. Unfortunately, Boom's tinted lens does his work a disservice, making All Eyez on Me feel more like a devoted fan's portrait than a critical look at its subject.
All Eyez on Me doesn't actually depict Ayanna Jackson's alleged rape. We hear Shakur telling a journalist how he got to prison. We see how he and Jackson hooked up, consensually, at a club. We see that she attempts to have sex with him again in his hotel suite days later, but he leaves her after she massages him and goes into another room. Then, we see Shakur awoken by her screams, as she accuses the rapper of leaving her alone to be assaulted by his friends. (Shakur was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse for inappropriate touching, but acquitted on the charge of sodomy.)
This is all consistent with Shakur's version of events. And according to Boom, that's all he was interested in putting forth.
"We told it the way Pac told it," Boom said. "There are interviews that he gave that directly connect to the way that we shot the movie: When he talks about getting the massage, going into the room, falling asleep, waking up to somebody knocking on the door, screaming at him, and he has no idea what she's screaming about."
Boom argued that "people who do the research" would note the lack of rape evidence against Shakur, and he indicated a lack of interest in "re-litigating" the story. When asked if he had any concerns about not offering an omniscient point of view, so that Jackson's version of events — that Shakur was present for and participated in a group assault — could also be heard, Boom's response was a firm denial.
"No, because if you watch the film, Tupac spent eight years in prison," Boom said. (For the sexual abuse charge, Shakur actually served eight months in New York state's Clinton Correctional Facility.) "So we're telling the story the way he told it, but we're also showing the consequences of his actions."
There are a couple of significant problems here. One is a logical and logistical issue: Shakur is not the narrator throughout the entire movie. We do not see everything exclusively through his point of view; multiple scenes take us to perspectives he couldn't have seen. One bit in particular shows us Biggie Smalls' reaction to Shakur recording "Wonda Why They Call U Bitch" with Smalls' wife, Faith Evans. (Incidentally, Boom also chooses not to show Shakur asking Evans for sex.)
To insist that Shakur's point of view is the only one necessary for certain portions of the film makes little sense. Why would that be the case? Why be inconsistent within the film? At worst, the haphazard application is deceptive; at best, it's sloppy.
The other problem is a moral one: that the accused man's perspective is the only one worth depiction. Jackson's account of the incident is publicly available, but Boom chose to ignore it. There's also no indication in All Eyez on Me that Shakur's account is anything but factual. Because of this, Boom sacrificed the opportunity to paint a more complex portrait of the situation.
Considering how much criticism another recent hip-hop biopic, 2015's Straight Outta Compton, received for glossing over Dr. Dre's violence against women, it's all the more puzzling that Boom and the writers would treat this part of Shakur's tale in this way. The slice of the film that required the most thoughtful storytelling received the most one-sided treatment.
Boom is a self-avowed fan of Shakur. "I think me knowing him and respecting him as a fan from the outside made me the person that was needed to make this movie," he told GQ. That fandom comes through in how kindly Boom treats his subject, consistently giving the rapper the last word in conversations and, for much of the early film, presenting him as an unstoppable force on the rise in the music industry. Unfortunately, the lack of distance from his subject is clear, and not just in this section of All Eyez on Me. The final product is more a work of love for Shakur than it is clear-eyed filmmaking.
Boom acknowledges Shakur as a complicated figure — the film doesn't shy from the fact that he went to jail as a consequence of whatever happened the night of the sexual abuse. But All Eyez on Me is ultimately more reverent than revolutionary. In taking on a biopic about the entire scope of Shakur's life, Boom accepted the challenge to translate the rapper to the big screen, flaws and all. While he occasionally gets close to achieving that, the treatment of the allegations falls short. The final product is a bit of a mess, one that makes too many troubling errors along the way.
All Eyez on Me is in theaters now.
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