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How's that New Movie About Slain Rapper Tupac Shakur?

Rapper Tupac Shakur was a legend. The singer, murdered in Las Vegas at the age of 25, had several number one hits, appeared in numerous movies and sold 75 million records. One of his albums sold nearly 600,000 copies in one week alone. Oddly, he is as big a star today as he was in 1996 when he was shot dead in a drive by shooting reportedly in part of what was dubbed by the music press as the East Coast – West Coast rapper war. Young people today venerate him just as their predecessors in the 1990s did. The new movie All Eyez on Me, that opened Friday, is the powerful story of his rise and fall and features a memorable, truly striking performance by Demetrius Shipp Jr. as the singer.

All Eyez on Me is a fierce, vivid look at rap music history in the 1990s, an era in which rap had become a musical force, at New York born Shakur’s climb to the top, his rivals, the chaotic music industry and the way that Tupac and his music shook up a nation of young people in search of a new world and a new star to lead them to it. They found all of that in the fast talking, brilliant, gifted Shakur, who set the rap music world on fire.

But the movie is more than a biography of a musical force. It starts in the 1960s, when Tupac’s parents were members of the Black Panthers. (He was named after a Peruvian revolutionary leader.) The Panthers’ strident black power crusade was carried on by his mom throughout her life and she passed on her ideals to Tupac. There is a point in the movie when someone talks to Tupac about the “inner city” and he shouts back that blacks live in the “outta city,” a city outta the minds of the rest of the country, the white country. It is a stunning scene.

The film depicts him as a tough talking macho “gangsta rap” leader but also as tender young man who loves his mom, adores his sister and grows up in the ghettos of several cities and sees violence all around him. He says mournfully in the film that on the first day he moved to a city with his mom he saw a black man shot to death in his neighborhood.

The movie tracks his quick rise to the top and his meeting with fellow rapper and rival “Biggie” Smalls and, later, thuggish Suge Knight, record impresario and head of Death Row Records.

Tupac made a lot of mistakes, including stupidly getting into a gunfight with two undercover cops he thought were brutalizing a black man. He is a victim of circumstances, too, caught in a three-way sexual romp in which he was wrongfully accused of molesting a girl and sent to prison for nearly a year by a hard-nosed judge who refused to look at him throughout the trial.

Shipp, as Shakur, is mesmerizing. He not only looks like him in the legendary bandana with the rabbit ears and moves like him, but portrays him as a brilliant, sensitive young man with extraordinary gifts but a man for whom success continually backfires. He shows us Shakur as a man completely in charge of his music but not at all in charge of his personal life or his spot in the rap world.

Shakur always winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time and is not served well by agents, managers and financial advisors. He gets fast talked into a long-term contract that he cannot get out of and just shakes his head at his sorry circumstances. Where were his advisors and confidants? All that money rolling in and he has no financial planner? Few people in music plan their careers, often careers that rocket skyward in just a few months, and Tupac was one of them. He was a lost boy in a world of crooked men and became a victim of them all.

Director Benny Boom and screenwriters Jeremy Haft and Eddie Gonzalez show of all that, and with great style. They paint a choking portrait of a dazzling superstar caught in the middle of a music war with nowhere to turn, a man who is always trying to help people but in the end could not help himself.

All Eyez on Me, produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, is a searing look at a rap legend, an American icon and a young man who was very mixed up and just did not know what to do with his fame. True fame, for him, was a lethal elixir.

You feel sorry for Tupac because he was a genuinely sincere man who tried to improve the lives of African Americans through his music. In interviews and in conversations with friends he continually pressed for more understanding between Americans and outlined his hopes for a better world. The movie is not just a tribute to his memory, but a scorching indictment of the rap music business and law enforcement. He was beaten by police, nearly killed by prisoners and shot five times in a music dispute in a hotel lobby. Things just did not go right for him.

Was he a saint? Of course not. But he was a good man, warts and all, who deserved a better shake form the America he lived in.

There are problems with the film. Granted that the story of rap music is complicated, but the film just does not tell the story of it and Shakur in detailed fashion. There is a point in the film where Tupac is becoming popular, even criticized by Vice President Dan Quayle, and all of a sudden the story is jolted by the talk of plots to do him harm. There is no gentle transition from one part of the film to the next, as is needed. Tupac’s professional relationships with rapper Biggie Smalls and Suge Knight are glossed over, as are all of his legal problems in the music world. The East Coast – West Coast war is not explained as well as it might have been and it might have resulted in Tupac’s death. There is no explanation of why so many women, whom he insulted in many of his songs, remained his loyal fans.

History in the film is tweaked a little. There were a number of enemies of Shakur in the music business but just a few are mentioned. Personal depictions are stretched a bit. As an example, actress Jada Pinkett Smith (played well by Kat Graham) said on Twitter after it opened that the portrayal of her romance with Shakur in the film was not accurate. The fact that his godmother was alleged cop killer Joanne Chesimard was not mentioned. The suspicion that a gang outside of the rap world killed him in retribution for some slight was mostly overlooked.

There are other weaknesses in the movie. The ‘F’ word is used far more times than is necessary and the movie sadly, very sadly, continues to show African Americans calling each other the ‘N’ word. 

Overall, though, the film is a solid biography of Tupac and his world and a well told and moving story of a chaotic chapter in American music history.