It’s a mystery. As human beings we somehow find a way to embody so many seemingly contradictory extremes all at once. Another mystery is why we’re so captivated by people who exemplify these extremes.
Is the secret to their magnetism the fact that we see ourselves in them or that they personify who we aspire to be? To many of us Lesane Parish Crooks, aka Tupac Shakur, extreme and contradictory figure. He had so many different facets to his persona- the human, the star, the rapper, the poet, the actor, the homie, the inspiration and, in 2017, the role model and audio-cultural father figure.
The challenge of creating this latest hip-hop biopic was immense, something historically hard to achieve as it not only has to do justice to a tremendous man but also capture his story in a compelling way. It had to deliver not only a depiction of the multifaceted man that was Tupac Shakur but also produce a good movie while doing it.
To moviegoers not familiar with Pac, the film does a decent job of exploring his life from his birth and early upbringing, to his rise to fame and tragic death. We get to see the seed from which came the “black rose that grew from the concrete”. The influence of the Black Panther movement and the systemic oppression he grew up were captured in the portrayal of Shakur’s early life. Scenes like the FBI busting through the door on Christmas morning as well as one of an adolescent Tupac witnessing police brutality firsthand do well to illustrate the boy that will become the man that will change the world.
With such an eventful life and the time constraints of a feature film many things are glossed over, jammed together, skipped entirely or, even worse, fabricated. To those who are more familiar with Pac (which should be pretty much everyone at this point) the movie is severely lacking in many key areas. His rise to fame happens almost instantly with the Digital Underground, followed by a comically bad signing with Interscope. Diehard fans will bemoan the by-the-numbers, Wikipedia-like depiction of Shakur’s life. Devices, like an interview from jail, are used to frame scenes and fill viewers in on key details without exploring the depth of their impact on his life. Expectations were high for a movie doing justice to the larger than life person that was Tupac Amaru Shakur and sadly while we do walk the proverbial mile in Pac’s shoes, we are left lacking some of the depth of the journey.
The technical side of the movie making equation is where this movie’s flaws are most evident. The troubled production history shows through and the change of directors from John Singleton to Benny Boom didn’t inspire confidence in many, and rightly so. This movie seems like it’s rushing. Some of the most corny and cringe worthy decisions (Snoop voice-doubling a lip-synching actor anyone?) fall squarely in the director’s lap. Though some scenes do convey deep emotion like the visit from his mother while Pac was in the pen, others are comically scripted nonsense.
For example, the Deray Davis cameo as Legs who, in the middle of trying to inspire a young Tupac, starts a fight in an inept attempt by the director to show the dark sides of his role models. Some of the set dressing and a few concert scenes had me wondering how this movie was made with a larger production budget than the recent Straight Outta Compton. However the score and the costumes are major strengths of this film, especially towards the end where we delve into the Death Row era.
Casting choices are critical to a biopic’s success. And this is another hit or miss category in this film. On one hand we have terrible choices like the aforementioned lip-synching Snoop and on the other we have excellent performances like Danai Gurira’s as Afeni Shakur. She brings some much needed emotional weight to this film as she displays impressive range while depicting Afeni’s struggle.
Above all we have the front man Demetrius Shipp as Pac himself and I have to say he does an admirable job. At first the visual differences between Shipp and Pac were definitely noticeable, but as the movie went on I completely forgot I was watching an actor. Although it’s unreasonable to expect him to embody all the charisma and magnetism of Pac, homie did well.
Jamal Woolard, reprising his role as Biggie, and Dominic Santana as Suge Knight are other standouts. All this is once again compromised by the creative direction of the film as many characters like the Dogg Pound and the Outlawz are ignored while others are given forced and unnecessary dialogue like the interviewer asking about Pac’s infamous Thug Life tattoo.
Once again, this film has to be judged on two main points- the telling of Pac’s life and the production of the movie in itself. And here we get a very superficial telling of the life of a man that was so intense and gripping that we still feel the impact over 20 years after his passing. We also have a movie that is truly technically flawed but with some redeeming sparks of brilliance.
Shoutout to the time enduring music of Tupac himself which does everything it can to elevate the film. But would I recommend this movie? That is the ultimate question here. And I would say that we should show support, but I ain’t mad at cha if you wait to see it on Netflix.