The late Tupac Shakur stands undisputedly as one of hip-hop’s most magnetic, profound and complicated figures in history. Heralded as a revolutionary MC, it’s not surprising that the process to create a comprehensive film on his life would be fraught with multiple setbacks and obstacles.
“It took 10 years of my life to make this movie,” producer L.T. Hutton says as part of an emotional introduction before an audience who would finally view the finished product at the world premiere of All Eyez on Me in Los Angeles at the Westwood Village Theatre (June 14). The film — which stars Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac, Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett Smith, Danai Gurira as Afeni Shakur, Dominic L. Santana as Suge Knight and Hill Harper as a journalist interviewing Tupac in jail (perhaps a subtle ode to Kevin Powell who interviewed Shakur while he was locked up on Rikers Island) — explores the life and death of the fallen icon.
Shakur’s impact on people is evident by the immense amount of fans who swarmed the premiere and the various celebrities who came to see the film, including Big Boi, 2 Chainz, E-40, Tyga, Claudia Jordan, Tia Mowry, Floyd Mayweather and many individuals who had a personal relationship with ‘Pac like Leila Steinberg, Shock G and Money B of Digital Underground, as well as members of the Outlawz hip-hop group formed by ‘Pac. In anticipation of seeing the film, The Lady of Rage told Billboard that she hoped it would depict Tupac as “the passionate man that he was, the strong man that he was, the revolutionary man that he was, the man with the backbone.”
“We wanted to entertain and educate with this movie,” director Benny Boom said on the red carpet. Spanning more than two hours, the film captures many parts of Shakur’s life, from growing up in Harlem to moving to California and eventually getting into the rap game. Throughout his tenure, he experienced many pitfalls, like going to jail after being convicted of sexual abuse as well as being shot five times at New York’s Quad Studios before the verdict of the trial came in.
Without question, the most difficult part of the movie to watch is the shooting in Las Vegas that led to Shakur’s death. Boom notes how this scene is so emotional because it symbolizes a greater issue. “It was bigger than ‘Pac. It really brought me back to thinking about all these young black men that have been killed in the streets.” Nevertheless, Shakur lived a fruitful and intentional life, embodying the words said by his stepfather Mutulu in the film: “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
Below are some of the key themes in the Tupac biopic:
Black Love Is Political
In an early scene, Afeni Shakur is pictured with husband Mutulu Shakur giving a speech at a Black Panther party. In a subsequent scene, Afeni is walking down the street with a young Tupac and his sister, Sekyiwa (affectionately referred to in the film as “Sek”), before recognizing a man who has been secretly following her family. Frustrated at being constantly watched due to Mutulu being wanted by the FBI, she angrily scolds the man and lets him know she has no desire to offer up her partner to the feds. Speaking to Tupac as a child, she says, “Your stepdaddy is a revolutionary,” indicating not only her love but admiration and respect for the man who would be the early father figure to Shakur and show that a romantic partnership is built on more than just affection but alignment with one’s calling and cause.
Later on in the movie, viewers learn the impact his parents had on his perspective on relationships when he apologizes to Kidada, his eventual fiancée and daughter of Quincy Jones, for his comments in a 1993 Source magazine interview in which he criticized Quincy for his relationships with white women. Shakur explains to Kidada that he didn’t mean to come off so disrespectful but was only seeking to comment on how once obtaining a level of success, black men “elevate white beauty over black beauty.”
Death or Death Row
After being convicted of sexual assault, Shakur didn’t have the money to make bail, allowing an opening for Death Row Records founder Suge Knight to present ‘Pac with a life-changing opportunity. In the movie, Knight stands over Shakur and assures him of a new life of wealth and protection if he signs to Death Row. The next scene shows Tupac getting out of a private plane refreshed and ready to make a comeback after being released in October 1995.
What initially seemed like a great escape from a past life of problems and setbacks turned into a dark depiction of a record label run like a gang. Very graphic scenes show Knight ordering beatings of employees and associates who have crossed him as well as a subtle and poignant shot of Knight passing the hallway glancing at Dr. Dre in a way that confirms their strained and eventual failed business relationship. Knight eventually offers Shakur a chance at an imprint with Death Row called Death Row East. ‘Pac takes him up on his offer. The movie dramatizes Shakur’s unwavering loyalty to Knight, including the end of the movie, where he leaves Kidada in a Las Vegas hotel room to go out on the town with the label head, which ultimately leads to his untimely death after being shot at in a car.
True Friendship Is Kinship
In the film, Shakur talks to Vibe‘s Kevin Powell about the nature of his relationship with Jada Pinkett-Smith, saying, “She was somebody I connected with on a deeper level than you know just some romance type of thing.” Meeting Smith at the Baltimore School of the Arts as a young man, the movie displays the immediate bond they formed and the special friendship that was shared. Their adoration for each other is evident in scenes like ‘Pac reading her a poem he wrote for her before moving to Oakland, their continued interactions as they both rise to fame and fortune, and an argument at a party where Jada confronts Tupac for his aggressive and degrading actions post-jail as a Death Row artist.
The film is careful to portray the relationship as genuine and strong but not skew too much in the direction of romantic, which both denied adamantly. As Tupac notes to Kevin Powell in an interview he did from jail, “She was really my true best friend.”
Nothing Just About the Justice System
An early scene in the movie shows Shakur in October 1991 being stopped and slammed to the ground by police in Oakland for jaywalking. A foreshadowing of this event is seen previously as Shakur witnesses another black man being harassed by police in the streets upon his move to California. Both scenes set up the distrust Shakur has for the law.
The events that led up to the sexual assault charges brought against Shakur in late 1993 show him as a naïve and frivolous artist hanging with the wrong crowd and not carefully managing his interactions with women who may have a hidden agenda against the rapper. During his trial, his mom is depicted as helping him understand the corruption in the justice system.
When Shakur is convicted by a jury, he offers a monologue to the judge, proclaiming, “It’s obvious you’re not in search of justice.” He adds, “Do what you want to do because I’m not in your hands, I’m in God’s hands.”
Corruption, Not Correction
“Freedom ain’t free” are the words an impassioned Afeni Shakur told the press at a news conference after being acquitted of charges of conspiring to bomb New York along with other Black Panther members. Though the film doesn’t show Shakur’s mom’s struggles in jail while pregnant with him, in a later scene, she tells him while he’s in prison, “This mutha—-ing place is designed to destroy you.” Viewers see the effects that imprisonment had on the activist and then mom-to-be.
Shakur’s own near-mental breakdown occurs as he witnesses a man being killed and deals with the constant degradation by prison guards. In one part of the film, Kevin Powell sees Shakur being treated harshly by a black male guard and tells Shakur in his ear, “Every brother ain’t a brother,” alluding to how even people of Shakur’s own race can perpetuate and enforce a racist and discriminatory system. Shakur’s mom reminds him, however, that no matter his circumstances while locked up, he can overcome them, saying, “Your body is in prison, not your mind.”
The Music Business Is Shady Business
In the movie, Shakur sits in jail while his album Against the World sits atop the Billboard 200 chart. Although he’s a platinum-selling rapper, he can’t afford to pay his bail. He attempts to reach out to Interscope executive Ted Field using his allotted collect call and is mockingly told by Field’s assistant he will give him a call back. The harsh reality of how record labels profit off of an artist even if the artist isn’t seeing his own profit is sadly shown here.
Earlier in the movie upon his label signing, the disconnect between him and Interscope is seen during his meeting with two executives who don’t understand the importance of releasing his record “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” ‘Pac has to explain to them how even though the lyrical content is depressing, it’s an everyday occurrence that happens in impoverished and disenfranchised communities. Though the executives will never come to empathize with the story, they move forward in a contract seeing the economic rewards of exploiting an artist who at the time doesn’t have the ability to own his own narrative.
Shakur continues being financially shackled in his contract with Death Row. In one scene, Shakur learns more about the result of bad deals made in the industry when he tells Knight he’s fulfilled his three-album commitment and is given a book of all the outstanding expenses that need to be recouped from the label.
A Mother’s Love and Guidance
Quoting Shakespeare, Afeni tells Tupac while visiting him in jail, “Above all else, to thine own self be true,” encouraging him to keep his spirits high while being denied freedom. This sweet exchange between the two shows Afeni’s love for her son in a way that is empowering. Leaving the prison, one of Shakur’s most popular songs, “Dear Mama,” plays as a perfect ode to the woman who held him down no matter what.
Even in earlier parts of the film where Afeni falls into drug addiction after her husband is imprisoned and her morale is low from life as an activist, Tupac stays connected to her. Though not fully understanding of the extent drugs can take over a person’s mind and decision-making, he still loves his mom and eventually takes her to rehab. Upon her release at a family party, Tupac says to her, “I wouldn’t be the man I am without you.”
All Eyez on Me hits theaters June 16.