‘All Eyez on Me’ keeps it real on the good, bad of Tupac Shakur’s life

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Demetrius Shipp Jr. stars as Tupac Shakur in “All Eyez on Me.” | Codeblack Films

Even as soared he couldn’t stop himself from sinking.

As Tupac Shakur reached ever-greater heights as an artist and attained huge crossover commercial success, he was plunging deeper and deeper into the criminal life and senseless violence created out of macho nonsense, petty revenge and the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry that was born in the early 1990s.

What a waste. What a sad and terrible waste.

No doubt some will compare the Tupac movie “All Eyez on Me” to “Straight Outta Compton,” seeing as how both films cover the rise of seminal rap artists circa the late 1980s and early 1980s, and both films feature minority ensemble casts doing outstanding work.

In some ways, though, “Eyez” is more reminiscent of “Ray,” in that it’s a relatively straightforward biopic using conventional framing devices (including the liberal use of flashbacks) to tell the story of an extraordinary artist who overcame tremendous odds to become an American icon.

Except Ray Charles lived to be 73. When Tupac was gunned down on the street in Las Vegas in September of 1996, he was all of 25.

Thanks to the sure handed direction of Benny Boom; a blazing lead performance by the previously untested Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac; uncanny supporting performances by at least a dozen actors playing real-life figures ranging from The Notorious B.I.G. to Snoop to Suge Knight; some electric performance scenes, and a screenplay that never sugarcoats some hard truths, “All Eyez On Me” is enthralling, exhilarating and at times maddening.

We marvel at Tupac’s raw talent, his sensitive poetry, his loyalty to family, his onstage presence, his keen intelligence — but we shake our heads every time he instigates or refuses to walk away from violence, or succumbs to the trappings of fame.

“All Eyez” uses the time-honored technique of a journalist interviewing the subject, an easy portal into numerous flashback sequences. Hill Harper plays the journalist, who conducts the interview with Tupac in 1995, behind prison walls. (Shakur had been found guilty of convicted of sexual abuse after a woman claimed he and members of his entourage raped her. He always maintained his innocence.)

The journalist asks about Tupac’s upbringing, and we’re transported back to his childhood in East Harlem and then in Baltimore.

Danai Gurira delivers a powerful performance as Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, and Jamie Hector is equally effective as his stepfather, Mutulu Shakur.

Both were active revolutionary members of the Black Panther Party. After Mutulu was arrested in connection with a robbery of a Brinks armored truck in which a guard and two police officers were killed (he was convicted and remains behind bars), Afeni moved with her children to Baltimore.

At the Baltimore School of Arts, the young Tupac rocks the denim, writes poetry and forms a tight bond with Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), a kindred sensitive (and ambitious) soul. Theirs is more of a friendship of the heart than a passionate romance. Shipp and Graham have a sweet chemistry as the budding artists.

After yet another move — this time to a suburb of San Francisco — the teenage Tupac launches his recording career, catching his first big break when he hooks up with the Digital Underground as a supporting player. Within a couple of years Tupac had released “2Pacalypse Now,” launching his meteoric ascendancy to bestselling artist, generational spokesman, lightning rod for controversy — and magnet for trouble.

When Afeni retreats into hardcore drug addiction, Tupac heroically fights for his mother, never giving up until she agrees to seek help. In the studio, Tupac is an uncompromising artist, refusing to shy away from dark and brutal lyrics reflecting the realities of the neighborhoods.

But at the same time, Tupac essentially signs his career away to the intimidating and unforgiving Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) of Death Row Records, he gets involved in rough feuds with former allies such as The Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard) and Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis), and he indulges in myriad hedonistic pleasures.

Graham’s Jada Pinkett is the conscience of the film, at one berating her old friend Tupac at a party for becoming a caricature of the hard-partying hip-hop star. Annie Ilonzeh’s Kadida Jones (daughter of Quincy), who was engaged to Tupac at the time of his death, also does her best to warn him of the dangers of the choices he’s making, but you can see her eyes she knows it’s a losing battle.

Demetrius Shipp Jr. bears an uncanny resemblance to Tupac, but his performance goes much deeper than impersonation. Shipp does a beautiful job of capturing Tupac’s fire, his passion, his million-watt star presence — as well as his short fuse and his combative nature, even with those only looking out for his best interests.

Two decades after Tupac’s death, his murder remains unsolved. (Theories abound.)

Of course, some say Tupac lives. That’s utter nonsense, of course, but it speaks to the size of Tupac’s legend and the impact of his legacy. Only the all-time greats become the subject of such hoaxes and urban legends.

Just ask Elvis.


Codeblack Films presents a film directed by Benny Boom and written by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzales and Steven Bagatourian. Rated R (for language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality). Running time: 140 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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