All Eyez on Me: Grim and gritty biopic

Film: All Eyez on Me

Cast: Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham

Director: Benny Boom

Some purists may sniff but I suppose the first rappers were Jewish cantors and Christian monks chanting plainsong. Fast-forward to Rex Harrison “rapping” in My Fair Lady and Dr Dolittle. Young people might watch this authorised biopic about the revolutionary rap/hip hop artist Tupac Amaru Shakur for the music, but it’s so much more.

Thoughtful, grim and gritty, the film traces his brief, tumultuous life, growing up in the Badlands of Baltimore/Oakland/New York City to becoming one of the most influential voices in contemporary music. Tupac isn’t as well-known as that other bad boy of rap music, Eminem (catch his quasi-biopic 8 Mile) and I’m sure racism has something to do with it.

Only see how Elvis Presley (who I ADORE alongside the Beatles) became famous playing black music, while black musicians remained on the margins. Not so today, with Drake and Kanye West who have attained near-legendary status.

First-time actor Demetrius Shipp is excellent as the musician whose tragic story is framed through a series of interviews he gave in prison. (Among other infractions, Tupac was jailed for jaywalking (!) and sexual assault. “I was not raised to behave like that” he tells his interviewer and the jury (who believe him and could have indicted him for rape) Raised by a radical mother who belonged to the Black Panther movement, Tupac’s childhood friends included Gotham actress Jada-Pinkett Smith (who is married to A-list actor Will Smith)

Choppily edited, the film begins by jumping from 1971 to 75 to 82 and 87 outlining boyhood scenes, street demonstrations and the sloganeering (BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL) that caught the imagination of the world.  The yearning for social justice expressed vividly in Tupac’s songs can be traced to his activist mother and the black experience in the US of A. I don’t need to remind you, gentle viewer, of police racism in America. It’s there in this biopic, alongside Tupac’s observations about life, often recapped via Shakespeare and spiritual sayings which don’t seem to have helped resolve his problems. (drugs/sex/guns)

In one scene, Tupac says, “Our family crest is cotton so the only thing we can leave behind is our culture and music.” It’s interesting how African-Americans call each other “niggers” but detest whites who address them as such. If Tupac spoke on behalf of African-Americans, it doesn’t come through despite songs like Brenda’s Got A Baby about a pregnant preteen who becomes a prostitute to pay for her drug addiction and his insistence to record executives who want to axe the song, that it reveals the real America, black America.

The fabulous contract offered by music executives (who behave like the Mafia) secures Tupac an early release from jail and connects him to young rappers like Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre. Tupac becomes extremely successful – movies/ Billboard chartbusters/platinums/75mn records capturing a raw, earthiness mirroring the heartbeat – he also makes enemies along the way. As he sums it pithily, “every brother ain’t a brother.” The director injects a feeling of dread right through the film not just when Tupac’s mother warns him that “they” (who?) will give him “all the tools you need to destroy yourself.”  Tupac, brief candle, fulfils the prophecy.

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