The Bio-pic as a cinematic genre is a notoriously risky proposition: from the best Black Bio-pics like Sidney J. Furie’s LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) to Brian Gibson’s WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (1993) to the most questionable Lifetime Channel productions, the Bio-pic is a gamble that always pits historical accuracy against the demands of dramatic integrity. For legal reasons not all real-life characters or circumstances can be represented on screen, just as for dramatic reasons not all real-life circumstances and characters can be introduced or represented on screen. The form, length, and liability of a commercial narrative film require that what is called “Poetic license” trump both historical fidelity and specific character representations. Sometimes it works and you forgive the historical inaccuracies and sometimes it fails because you can’t accept that important characters or circumstances that have been changed or omitted; this is the risky gamble of every film created in this genre called the Bio-pic.
The more controversial the Bio-pic’s central subject, the greater the degree of cinematic poetic license that must be used by the filmmaker to ensure that the film is both dramatically satisfying to contemporary cultural tastes, prejudices, and illusions, as well as free of any potentially libelous representation that cannot be protected by artistic free speech statutes. I will define what I mean by cinematic poetic license here as: the changing of characters names from their real-life sources, the omission of characters and circumstances, the compression of two or more real-life characters into a single composite character, the inclusion of fictional characters and circumstances, the use of one central historical incident instead of a string of similar historical incidents, the choice of narrative starting and ending points, and the various representational liberty or censorship edicts determined by an individual’s estate and/or the endorsement of surviving family members. And even with the use of poetic license it is often little protection for a film, a filmmaker, and a studio if they are charged with historical inaccuracy by experts or the real-life acquaintances of the central biographical figure that can taint a Bio-pic’s tacit claim of historical authenticity and dramatic integrity by calling out fictionalizations, changes, and composite characters as falsehoods rather than acceptable and necessary cinematic poetic license. (1)
Recall that even one of the most dramatically powerful Bio-pics, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT contained multiple historical inaccuracies and changes from the original source material of Tina Turner’s 1986 autobiography, I Tina, that was co-written with Kurt Loder.(2) But the film itself has such a distinct dramatic integrity that is hinged in no small part upon the magnetism and depth of the performances of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike Turner respectively that historical inaccuracy and the questionable representation of real-life dramatic incidents were forgiven. But this forgiveness comes only if the film itself is dramatically satisfying. And this is what is meant by the phrase, dramatic integrity: does the film fulfill its dramatic intentions in such a way as to be believable in spite of the poetic license it takes with history? I will return to this issue of poetic license and the Bio-pic after my review of director Benny Boom’s Bio-pic of rap artist, Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) ALL EYEZ ON ME.
ALL EYEZ ON ME, the Tupac Shakur bio-pic written by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian and directed by Benny Boom is a major dramatic victory against all odds of false starts, director changes, lawsuits, script rewrites and re-conceptualizations. The film deftly captures the downs, the ups, the troubling contradictions, systemic persecution, and disappointments of Pac’s short but powerful life. To distract oneself with what the film leaves out is to not fully appreciate what is actually in the film. And while many of us are awaiting the film adaptation of Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER comic book, we should not let slip past us a film about the real life complexities of a Black rap artist who attempted to pursue a revolutionary goal in a White supremacist, class stratified, Anti-Black, misogynist and materialist society that was America in the 1990’s which in many ways still exists unchanged today.
There is a lot to admire in this bio-pic of the controversial –much loved and much hated- rap artist Tupac Shakur and the first thing to admire is the narrative complexity of the film which on many levels (metaphorical, symbolic, dramatic and political) mirrors the narrative complexity and inspirations of the artist whose life and lyrics it represents. That is to say, the film is cleverly organized around a 1995 jailhouse autobiographical interview given by the rapper just before he signs to Death Row Records, is bailed out of jail, releases his last two most significant albums (All Eyez on Me/Makaveli) and then is murdered near the Las Vegas strip in a hail of gunfire in September 1996. This fictional auto-biographical interview allows Boom to weave in and out of Tupac’s turbulent childhood, his rise to stardom, his persecution by government officials and Black community activists, the violent and vicious West coast/East coast rivalry, his rape trial, the attempted murder on his life, and his prison sentence. The use of the auto-biographical interview was just the right narrative structural masterstroke that was needed to highlight the ups and downs of the artist’s career and provide the much needed and relevant historical context of 1970’s Black Nationalism from which Tupac was born. After all, in real life who was better at telling you his story in songs and in interviews than Tupac Shakur himself?
But it is the context of Black Nationalism that allows this bio-pic to rise above the other lesser, by-the-numbers, bio-pics that have been recently created and rushed into production to cash in on audience sentiments after an artist or political leader’s death. The twenty plus years after Tupac’s still unsolved murder has afforded us a perspective on the past that benefits both from hindsight and some necessary distance from the polarizing East Coast/West Coast rap factionalism that ultimately helped to cover up the investigations of who actually ended the lives of two of raps most powerful voices: Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace AKA The Notorious B.I.G. But where the 2009 bio-pic NOTORIOUS attempted to simply capture the rise from poverty to stardom of The Notorious B.I.G., ALL EYEZ ON ME provides the political context that aids in revealing how the systemic persecution of Black rap artists in the 1990’s was really an informal continuation of U.S. government sanctioned anti-Black Nationalist pogroms intent on silencing and/or discrediting the voices of a post-Black Nationalist generation. That is to say, that while COINTELPRO the FBI program for disrupting Black Nationalist political organizations, may have officially ended in 1971, its practices and its White and Black practitioners continued its Anti-Black ethos in law enforcement, governmental social programs, public education, and within the criminal justice system to perpetrate what Michelle Alexander aptly described in 2012 as,” The New Jim Crow,” of mass incarceration. It is the historical context of Black Nationalism, the accruing legal fees and continued juridical persecution through which Boom captures the duality and the changes between the would-be revolutionary Tupac Shakur before 1995 and the materialist revenge obsessed Tupac Shakur after 1995.
Benny Boom, the fourth and final director attached to helm the project, should be given credit for getting what counts the most in any bio-pic: the performances. What is most striking in ALL EYEZ ON ME is how well nearly all of the actors embody most of the well known figures in Tupac’s life including Danai Gurira in an emotionally wrenching performance as Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur; Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett; Johnell Young as Ray Luv a friend of Tupac; Dominic L. Santana in a powerful portrayal as Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight; and the stunning lead performance of Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac Shakur himself. It is Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s progressive and calculated dramatic transformation into to the spirit of Tupac during the course of the film that makes the efforts of the entire cast rise above mere mimicry and into realm of real emotions, conflict and drama. One would think that just a mere resemblance to Tupac and Pac’s music would allow any actor to pull off a passable performance of the artist, but surprisingly Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s performance does not rest on his ability to merely lip sync Tupac’s rhymes, but in how he and Boom allow the spirit of Tupac to be revealed in scenes without music where the conflicts in Tupac’s life came to define the Tupac that we knew as an artist. In particular, the scene where Tupac has to convince the White “hipster” executives of Interscope Records that the “depressing” lyrics of his first solo single,” Brenda’s Got a Baby” in 1991 was more than just an attempt at entertainment, but instead was an unheard voice of his culture, his community and of the moral vicissitudes of American Blackness is the scene that also convinces a skeptical spectator, such as myself, about the entire film. This short but pivotal scene marks the beginning of the actor’s transformation and the revelation of the artist as represented in this stunning bio-pic.
Another engaging aspect of the film that should captivate those of us of a certain age is how Boom and his crew capture the 1990’s in both the fine details of the mise-en-scene from the multicolored Coogi sweaters, Timberland boots, oversized jeans, hand length cell phones and “big butt” televisions to a concise choice of classic and 90’s R&B music that breathes life into images that represent past with an emotional immediacy that mixes a spectator’s memory with the memories of an artist being represented on screen. But at the heart of the film, surprisingly, is not Tupac’s allegiances with the males within the film, but instead his relationships with four females that would both define his life and determine his destiny as an artist. The first of these relationships is of course with his mother Afeni Shakur. As French writer and philosopher Albert Camus has written,” the curious feeling the son has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility,” ALL EYEZ ON ME reveals the deep commitment and sensibility of both Tupac and his mother to each other. (3) We watch as she, after being released from jail for her involvement in the Black Panther party, schools her young son to be mentally strong and perceptive of the system and its many structures of oppression. She builds his will to be a revolutionary even as the idealism of Black Nationalism is crumbling around them. Later in the film, when his mother has fallen prey to drug addiction from the influx of crack cocaine that was deliberately used to break the spirit of Black unity and decimate Black communities from coast to coast, it is Tupac who must rebuild the revolutionary will of his mother, who again must return the gesture to Tupac as he languishes in prison a few years later. As the relationship between the mother and the son was the heart and soul of the artist, so also is this relationship the heart and soul of this film. It is difficult to maintain a dry eye as you watch this commitment play out against the ups and downs (some self inflicted and others systemically designed) by both the mother and the son throughout the film.
The second, but no less important relationship, is the one between Tupac and actress Jada Pinkett who figures as a soul mate and best friend in Tupac’s life before he started his career. It is a multi-faceted relationship of back-handed compliments, tender affection, and straight up honesty that for Tupac at least would be corrupted and winnowed by rape and assault charges that later plagued his career. The moment were Jada Pinkett confronts him about his increasingly conflicted and negative persona and then literally walks out of his life while he is at the height of his notoriety is one of somber, even tragic, significance. The third relationship that contrasts sharply with previous two is the sexual affair with the vivacious Briana (Erica Pinkett) who first infamously seduces Tupac with fellatio on a club’s dance floor and then is the victim of sexual assault months later in his hotel room which leads to his incarceration. If the turbulent fraternal politics of the film are captured by the repeated line that,” every brother ain’t a brother,” then the sexualized politics demonstrated by the relationships between Jada Pinkett and Briana with Tupac Shakur is that,” every sista ain’t a sista,” and the film reveals in its steady and calculated moral progression how Black nationalism was forced by economic deprivation to turn into Black materialism and thus the ideals of unity, political power, and spiritual uplift were corrupted, co-opted, and ultimately turned against us as Black folk. When Briana pleads,” How could you let them do this to me!” to a stunned and dazed Tupac after her sexual assault in his hotel room one can feel the proverbial “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” begin to assail our Tupac from whence we saw him reciting the lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in high school earlier in the film.
The final relationship in the film is that of Kidada Jones (Annie Llonzeth), the daughter of mega-music producer Quincy Jones, who was engaged to Tupac at the time of his death. This relationship is a return to the idealism that was once imbued in the Tupac and Jada relationship, but it is tragically too late to sustain a change in him as revenge, money, materialism and the deepening hooks of Suge Knight and Death Row Records increase their grip on the star in the last days of his life. As Tupac leaves her for a final time in a Las Vegas hotel room there is a moment’s hesitation by each of them on either side of a closed door that captures symbolically an unspoken moment of indecision that would turn out to be an eternal regret for both as he would be shot multiple times at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane and meet his untimely demise several days later on September 13th 1996.
If there is a political lesson within Benny Boom’s ALL EYEZ ON ME then it is as complicated and profound as a similar political lesson found in a classic Hollywood film of a different genre, John Ford’s 1962 masterpiece Western, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. In Ford’s film, the rise of an idealistic U.S. Senator is based upon the legend that he killed a violent and criminal thug whose murder was necessary for the good of the community and the acceptance of their territory to U.S. statehood. Only the film reveals that it was an unknown hero who killed the criminal thug and allowed the U.S. Senator to take credit for the murder while he himself was forgotten to history. The film ends with the decision to not tell the truth about the murder because,” This is the West… When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Even though the film itself records the truth behind the legend. ALL EYEZ ON ME is the Black hand side of this White political lesson, when an idealistic Black man, who was portrayed in the media as a criminal thug within a system that is dead set against the success of him or his kind, is killed by an unknown villain the facts of his life become legendary while his murderer recedes into the background of history and therefore you must film the legend and record a representation of the guilty party- albeit very carefully. For Benny Boom, the writers, the actors and producers involved in this film, against all odds, the job was well done. And while no film is perfect there is certainly more to like within ALL EYEZ ON ME than there is to distract from the effort put forth to make this film.
Returning to the discussion of cinematic poetic license, it is well known now that real-life actress Jada Pinkett-Smith has spoken out about the historical inaccuracies regarding her relationship with Tupac and its representation with the film ALL EYEZ ON ME. (4) Pinkett-Smith has given a list of deviations concerning the real actions shared between Tupac and herself and the representation of their relationship within the film. But the Biopic as a genre can never be 100% historically accurate. Like the adaptation of a book, the Bio-pic can only be faithful to the spirit of the central figure it attempts to represent if only for the reasons of narrative length and legal liability that have been previously mentioned. For example, one can say for certain that yes, Ike Turner physically abused Tina Turner, but not exactly –punch for punch- the way the film depicts it because it is impossible to recreate history, but it is possible to represent history with actions, performances, and details that are very similar and capture the spirit of the past in the present. We must apply the same caution and poetic license to what is represented in ALL EYEZ ON ME.
No, everything that happened between Jada Pickett and Tupac Shakur did not happen in this film as it did in real life, but the demands of creating a dramatically satisfying film under a certain length of time required that some events, circumstances and actions be changed, compressed, omitted, and manipulated. Of all the people in the world, Jada Pinkett-Smith, an actress, producer, and business woman, knows this to be true of the cinematic art form. But her comments must be understood as those from someone too intimately familiar with the circumstances to allow for poetic license in the fictional representation of those circumstances. There are many events, actions, and characters missing from ALL EYEZ ON ME. For reasons of legal liability the film eclipses filmmaker John Singleton’s friendship with Tupac (the result, no doubt, of Singleton’s hostile departure from the project in its development stages) as well as the infamous assault and battery Tupac committed against The Hughes Brothers filmmakers for which he was taken to court over.(5) Also missing from the film is any mention of Singleton’s 1993 film POETIC JUSTICE which starred Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson and her alleged request that Shakur take an H.I.V. test before filming any sex scenes. But clearly it was not and could not have been Boom’s intention to represent every aspect, detail, acquaintance, and event of Tupac’s life- he could only represent those aspects that follow the theme he was pursuing in the story of this artist.
To demand that ALL EYEZ ON ME as a single Bio-pic transpose every detail of Tupac Shakur’s life to the screen in rigid fidelity to historical accuracy is to demand something that no commercial cinematic film can achieve and the attempt to fulfill such a demand would have opened up the filmmakers and the studio to various lawsuits by individuals whose names, likenesses, and reputations might have been damaged in the process. For all these reasons and more the criticism of historical accuracy within a Bio-pic is not the standard by which we should be judging these films. It is the standard of dramatic integrity by which these films should be judged and whether or not the central events chosen within the film along with the strength of the performances provide enough power to get us to believe we are seeing the spirit of the central character faithfully represented and whether or not we gain any insight into the conflicts and decisions these central characters were confronted with in their time that has somehow affected our own times. If this can be accepted as a standard for critiquing the Bio-pic then in my humble opinion ALL EYEZ ON ME has exceeded the standard and it is a grand tribute to the legacy and the legend of Tupac Amaru Shakur.
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
3) See Matthew Ward’s translator’s introduction to The Stranger by Albert Camus, Vintage Press: New York, 1988.
5) Read a brief recap of the lawsuits and turmoil in the making of the biopic in The Tupac Biopic Dodged Lawsuits, Feuds, and a Wavering Estate. Was It Worth It? By Alex Suskind