He was a man, take him for all in all
I shall not look upon his like again.
So Shakespeare’s Hamlet said of his father—a king killed, and all too soon.
Tupac Shakur had a soft spot for the Bard. According to this movie, Tupac once earned the title role in Hamlet at the Baltimore School for The Arts. But that was before his mother shipped him and his little sister off to Marin City, Calif., where his life took a different trajectory.
Tupac joined the group Digital Underground, and in 1991 he released his first solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now. It began a five-year odyssey that included four albums, several arrests, a nine-month prison sentence and millions upon millions of records sold.
In 1996, Tupac was gunned down in Las Vegas—shot four times. Six days later, he was dead.
He was just 24.
All Eyez On Me, named for Tupac’s 1995 double-album opus, gives us the story of Tupac as if told by Tupac: a sympathetic portrait of one of rap’s most influential artists.
All Eyez on Me tells Tupac’s story essentially from Tupac’s point of view. And he sees himself less as a rapper and more as a revolutionary—a catalyst for much-needed change.
“You must stand for something,” Tupac’s stepfather tells him. “You must live for something, and you must be willing to die for something.” His mother, Afeni, stands against what she sees as a racist system of government. And given the police brutality depicted here, we’re led to believe that it’s a system badly in need of change. Accordingly, some of Tupac’s more controversial raps are meant to tell stories of injustice that are too often ignored.
Tupac also encourages another iconic rapper of that generation, Notorious B.I.G., to infuse his lyrics with social awareness. He stands up for people he sees being abused and attacked.
Obviously, we can question the sincerity, effectiveness or even the desirability of some of Tupac’s efforts. But he helps in other ways, too. When Afeni gets addicted to crack, Tupac pays for her to spend time in a recovery center. Thanks to his help and her hard work, Afeni gets clean and stays that way. He also gives money to his little sister when she’s in need, too.
When Tupac’s about to be sentenced for sexual abuse charges, he tells the judge, “Do what you want to do because I’m not in your hands,” he says. “I’m in God’s hands.”
Tupac references God in other ways, too: We see him with crosses dangling from his neck. (And he wears an ankh in an Egyptian-themed music video as well.) At one point, he tries to frame one of his most controversial songs, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” as a brutal parable that wouldn’t seem out of place in church. (When a music executive says that he’s Jewish, Tupac encourages him to consider the song’s meaning within his own religious context.) Tupac also describes another song (and its salacious video) as a “gospel song.” There’s a sarcastic comment about “holy water.”
As Tupac lies on a Vegas street, shot and slowly dying, we hear a gospel song that talks about how “God set me free” and how “Jesus died for you and me.”
We see Tupac in a hotel suite filled with six or seven nude or partially nude women (nothing critical is exposed, but the manager dryly speculates how much they all cost). Tupac also attends a party where women walk around topless, in rear-revealing thongs or other similarly skimpy lingerie. He’s often seen with three or four women draped over him—mere accessories, it would seem, for Tupac’s lavish lifestyle.
Tupac spends time in jail after being convicted of sexually abusing a woman. While he (and the movie) insist he had nothing to do with the abuse, we still see how the incident played out in Tupac’s eyes, and it’s still plenty problematic. Days earlier, the woman in question—wearing a tight, revealing dress—performs a sex act on him. On the night in question, she’s in Tupac’s hotel suite with the rest of the rapper’s posse, then leads him into a bedroom where she gives Tupac a sensuous massage. She clearly wants to have sex, but he rejects her and goes to another room to sleep. In the morning, she bursts in, crying and clothes torn, saying she’s been assaulted and that it’s his fault.
Tupac flirts with Kidada Jones, daughter of famous music producer Quincy Jones. She’s initially not interested in his advances, given he once crudely talked about Quincy’s sexual habits in an interview. But they eventually become an item. We see the two make out passionately, with Kidada wearing only her underwear. They kiss elsewhere, too.
Tupac’s mother and stepfather also kiss. There are references to Tupac’s sexually explicit and often degrading lyrics—with one interviewer suggesting a possible link between what he sings about and what he’s in prison for. Tupac also gets cozy with Notorious B.I.G.’s wife. While we don’t actually see anything happen, Tupac later raps about having slept with her.
Violence is an integral part of Tupac’s stormy life, and he’s often the one who’s on the offensive. Tupac and others burst out of a car to attack two white men mercilessly beating a black man. (We later learn the white assailants were off-duty cops who’d swiped some weapons from a police evidence room.)
Tupac and his friends also tangle with critics at a Marin City fair. Somehow during the fight, shots ring out. A bullet hits a 6-year-old boy, who apparently dies in his wailing mother’s arms. He and others also attack a guy wearing a medallion which was stolen from someone in Tupac’s entourage. The violent melee eventually ends; later that night, Tupac puts the blood-tinged medallion on before he goes out on the town again.
But Tupac’s also a victim of violence. He’s shot five times outside a recording studio, and we witness bullets puncturing Tupac’s clothes (though audiences don’t see much blood). Then, most critically, he’s gunned down in Vegas. The camera focuses on the gun at first, not Tupac, and we see several bullet holes in his car. Later, Tupac’s dragged out of the vehicle. We see him laboriously breathing but don’t see any bullet wounds.
Tupac’s hit and flipped on the ground by police for jaywalking. In prison, two guards brutalize him in the hall, punching and kneeing him. As a child, Tupac sees police throw and wrestle with a guy for a minor infraction; and he watches as FBI agents burst into his mother’s apartment, looking for his felon stepfather. (His mother is handled roughly in that scene as well.) Elsewhere, Tupac sees a man’s middle section being sliced open, and blood seeps from the wound.
Tupac eventually signs a deal with Suge Knight—portrayed in this film as a seriously shady gangster. Knight has his thugs beat someone who’s apparently displeased him, for instance. And at a fancy dinner attended by his music label’s biggest talents, Knight suddenly attacks someone who’d been allegedly cheating him (à la Al Capone in The Untouchables), stuffing his face full of potatoes and waterboarding him with champagne. He then turns the man over to his mercenaries, who beat him further (although out of camera shot).
One prisoner knifes another: The man appears to die on the prison exercise yard. Clouds of tear gas incapacitate several other inmates who are standing around watching.
A rapper takes a knife and hides it under his coat. Someone gets slapped.
I counted about 210 f-words, and I’m almost certain that count is low, given the number of profane Tupac songs playing in the background and frenetic, angry, crowd scenes filled with shouting and swearing. We also hear more than 110 s-words and at least 70 uses of “n-gga.” God’s name is misused at least 15 times, a dozen of those with the word “d–n.” Other profanities include “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p—y.”
Someone in Tupac’s posse shows him several lines of coke and offers him some. Tupac waves him away with an air of disgust: He doesn’t do that sort of thing, he says.
But Tupac and others drink, sometimes heavily. Beverages include beer, wine, cognac, champagne and lots of other alcoholic beverages. Kidada tells Afeni that she’s weaning Tupac off his “hot wings and Hennessy” diet.
Tupac smokes a great deal, too. Sometimes it’s tobacco (ironically counteracting the anti-smoking commercial that preceded the screening I saw), but more often its marijuana. We also see him playing with some dried weed on his table, and he rarely records songs without smoking a blunt.
Suge puffs on massive cigars. Tupac’s mother smokes cigarettes, and we also see her paying for crack cocaine. Tupac rails at Afeni for getting hooked on the stuff, telling her it’s making her “weak.” She says that she can quit anytime, but she eventually agrees to go into a treatment center. When Tupac later asks how she’s doing, she says that she’s taking it “one day at a time,” but that she’s clearly determined to stay clean. (We hear a Tupac song about his mother in the background at one juncture, referencing her one-time addiction.)
Tupac’s mother and stepfather are heavily involved with the militant group the Black Panthers. Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu, is on the run for robbing a bank: When Tupac asks his mother whether it’s true, Afeni admits she doesn’t know. But that it doesn’t matter, she insists, given America’s “racist, fascist, imperialist system” of government (as she described it earlier).
Tupac believes that several people have tried to cheat him. Suge Knight promises Tupac that his music label, Death Row Records, is a family; but Tupac eventually realizes that Suge has manipulated assets to ensure that Tupac can never leave.
“Only God can judge me,” Tupac raps. “Nobody else.”
We hear this sentiment often from Tupac. And on at least one level, he’s probably right. I can’t weigh his soul, and I wouldn’t want to. All of us live very complex, complicated lives full of paradox and inconsistency—just like Tupac. Those who know us know aspects of our character, but no one knows, truly, who we are. Not even we ourselves. Only God knows. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” we read in Mathew 7:1. I get that.
But while we’re not encouraged to be judgmental, I believe that we are asked to use good judgment—a very different thing. We can’t weigh a person’s soul, but we can determine whether we want to invite them for dinner or let them borrow our car. We must use good judgment when we decide who and what we’re going to influence our lives and the lives of our children.
No, I can’t judge Tupac Shakur. But I can judge his work, his legacy and—especially in this context—this movie about his life.
All Eyez On Me is less a biopic and more a hagiography. It offers an invitation to justify and minimize Tupac’s violent, misogynistic lyrics and criminal record, and to embrace him as a heroic crusader. He was no saint, the film admits, and he could’ve done some things better. But whatever mistakes he made were influenced and augmented by a corrupt system and his unsavory associates. Blame the judicial system. The police. Suge. Snoop Dogg. But don’t blame Tupac, the movie says.
Moreover, the film is filled with the same salacious content that so saturated Tupac’s music—the sex, the violence, the illicit substances. Only, of course, we don’t just hear about them but see them, too. And the profanity is not just “salty,” as in a dish over-seasoned with language; it serves as the dish’s main ingredient.
Tupac was a rare talent, no question. But this movie based on his life is barely watchable and rarely edifying.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.