Tupac Shakur was a rapper born in 1971 in Harlem, New York. He moved to Oakland, California in 1988 where he got involved in the music scene. He studied acting in Baltimore, even doing a Shakespearean play. He joined the hip hop group, Digital Underground, which released its first album in 1990. He parlayed that into starring roles in films. He did about a half-dozen movies. He released four albums starting in 1991. His final album while alive was All Eyez on Me in 1996, a double disc that went on to become one of the best-selling albums in history. Shakur was killed six months after its release. He has since been ranked as one of the greatest and most influential rappers of all-time. Several, posthumous albums of his recordings have been released in the decade following his death, totaling over 75 million units sold.
There have been many biopics about music artists, tons in fact. There have been so many that music biopic could be considered its own genre. Shakur has been a character in two recent, music biopics. Both of which are in the top ten of highest-grossing, music biopics, according to Box Office Mojo. One of those biopics is Straight Outta Compton (2015), which is currently number-one. Given that, it seems obvious as to why this movie would be made. Shakur has become so revered but was at once a controversial figure that his story was ripe for the silver screen.
Over a dozen documentaries on TV and in theaters have been done on Shakur’s brief life, having died at age 25. The best of which was the Oscar-nominated Tupac: Resurrection (2003). Footage from that documentary is even incorporated here. Arguably, nothing new is learned or presented in this feature that we didn’t get in that 2003 film. This feature most likely will pass as a moderate tribute to Shakur.
It won’t be a hit like Straight Outta Compton because it doesn’t capture the zeitgeist like that 2015 film did. In addition to the typical struggles of music artists, Straight Outta Compton was about the black community’s tense relationship with the police in as much as being a biopic of Eazy-E. It also came in the wake of Black Lives Matter, so the film connected on that level. Now, Straight Outta Compton juggled a lot of things and characters, but it felt more focused than this film.
The nature of biopics often come with the unavoidable criticism of tackling too much, not being focused, and not able to dig deep into its subject. That is certainly true in biopics that follow a person from birth to death as this one does. I get the impulse to do it that way because Shakur was only on Earth for 25 years. It’s not that long, but some of the best biopics are even narrower.
One of the best biopics about Martin Luther King, Jr. was Selma (2014), which only focused on a year in King’s life, from 1964 to 1965. One of the best, music biopics was Love & Mercy (2015) about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. That was a complicated film but it too focused on a year in Wilson’s life, from 1965 to 1966, as he recorded the album Pet Sounds. Those slices of their lives often work better or are more effective than the ones that try to encompass an entire life in two hours.
Demetrius Shipp Jr. stars as Tupac Shakur and Shipp is the discovery of the year. This is Shipp’s acting debut. He’s a dead ringer for Shakur. He certainly has a similar sex appeal. It’s just I’m not convinced he has the same wit and charm. He can mimic Shakur externally but the film directed by Benny Boom can’t exactly connect with the rap icon internally. I would be curious to see more from Shipp in the future though.
I probably would have just as much enjoyed Marcc Rose who played Tupac in Straight Outta Compton here instead of Shipp. Rose’s role was not much more than a cameo, but it would have been interesting to see that connective tissue and have this movie be a quasi-sequel. Rose was a bit of a dead ringer for Shakur, but the better choice probably would have been Anthony Mackie who played Tupac in Notorious (2009). Mackie doesn’t have the exact look, but he certainly is the better actor and could have connected more internally.
Boom’s film goes through Tupac’s life almost year by year. The film depicts all the major and formative events in his life but at no point does the film go into any depths to expose or really explore anything. The movie is about the same length as Straight Outta Compton at about 140 mintues but this movie feels like it drags or spins its wheels whereas Straight Outta Compton feels brisk and well-paced.
The movie probably works best when it’s analyzing various Tupac songs, as they illuminate aspects of his life as well as certain things in culture. It just becomes a wide-range of issues. Each of which don’t get its proper due. There are some interesting themes that poke through the clutter. One theme is how authentic black culture is equated to thug mentality and thug persona and if one wants to be perceived as authentically black, one has to be or act like a thug.
There is the issue of a son dealing with his drug-addicted mother, which was just done in the Oscar-winning Moonlight. There’s how certain, right-wing people perceive rap music and how young people see it as a kind of reportage of what’s happening in the ghetto.
These issues could have been explored more deeply, enriching this film, but the movie skips past them and only gives them superficial treatment. Even something like Shakur’s rape case isn’t given much room to breathe. Instead, the movie would rather spend time depicting Suge Knight as this Nino Brown type character in the rap business.
This is now the third time Suge Knight has been portrayed in a major motion picture. Like Tupac, Suge was also in Notorious and Straight Outta Compton. Dominic L. Santana inhabits the role with as much toughness and menace as R. Marcos Taylor in 2015 and Sean Ringgold in 2009. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before a biopic just on Suge Knight is done. Until then, showing the final moments with Tupac and Suge seem unnecessary. Going through Tupac’s final steps didn’t add anything and the time wasted could have been used earlier in the movie exploring more relevant issues.
Rated R for language and drug use throughout, violence, some nudity and sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 20 mins.