The biopic is a popular and profitable genre that’s also notoriously difficult to do well. However, All Eyez on Me, which chronicles the life and death of legendary rapper Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), resists the temptation of the typical “rise and fall” narrative, instead opting for an extended flashback structure for its first two-thirds. These flashbacks are framed as a series of (fictional) interviews that Tupac gave while serving time in prison in 1995, during which he reflects on his life up to that point. This structure gives the movie the freedom to take a more fragmentary approach, singling out the aspects of his story that were more important to his music and career, and avoiding some of the usual biopic pitfalls in the process.
Tupac’s revolutionary philosophy and social-justice concerns are given a lot of focus throughout the film, as are his weaknesses for hedonistic excess and gang culture—a combination that leads his interviewer to label him a “walking contradiction” in one key scene. This emphasis on the passion and depth in Tupac’s lyrics is important, as it should help more casual fans of his music recognize that he was a singular and important voice in African-American culture. And we come to understand how he developed that voice via the film’s strong portrayal of his mother, former Black Panther Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira).
But while the flashback structure works well for the movie’s first two-thirds, Tupac’s release from prison and decision to sign with Death Row Records signals the end of this portion of the film, which gives way to a disjointed final act that lacks the momentum and energy of what came before. Despite a dynamic performance by Dominic L. Santana as Suge Knight, the domineering CEO of Death Row, the depiction of Tupac’s time at the label often feels flat and muddled. Even the addition of Jamal Woolard as rapper Biggie Smalls (the second time he’s played the role, after giving an excellent performance as Smalls in the biopic Notorious) fails to help the film regain traction, since Woolard is given little to do besides recreate his distinctive mannerisms.
But overall, All Eyez on Me is still an effective biopic and a worthy tribute to Tupac’s legacy, with Shipp delivering a convincing performance that conveys Shakur’s complexities as a man and a musician. While hardcore fans will argue over details that have been left out and aspects of Shipp’s performance that miss the mark, the important thing is that this film successfully celebrates Tupac’s spirit and cultural significance for those who might not have heard of him or who don’t understand the importance of his music. For this reason, All Eyez on Me serves as a fitting remembrance of a prolific and controversial American icon for both casual fans and curious observers.