'All Eyez On Me' and The Danger in Worshiping Our Idols
The 'All Eyez On Me' doc is not the first or last rehashing of Pac’s legacy. But when will it end?
Death is an unavoidable fact of life. Sometimes, it comes suddenly, in an abnormal seizing or bursting. Sometimes, in a fitful sleep or a quiet departure. Other times, it's dramatic; in a hailstorm of bullets, a few strong back-and-forths gripping a shiny edge, through a barrage of blunt hits, all hands and feet and an uncontainable anger. And sometimes, in the world's darkest corners, a body is forced to endure all three, and then some. Tupac Shakur's body was one of them.
The rapper's unprecedented rise to superstardom did two things. Firstly, it put a young black man, weary of the ways of the world, on the world stage and demanded that he become a spokesperson for his family and friends and fictive kin; the young and poor and black of America. Secondly, it took him to heights no one could've imagined a young, poor, black American man like him to reach. Then, it left him there, flailing in the wind, troublesome and hopeless as ever, with nowhere to go but down. Eventually, he died. Murdered. In 1996, after surgeries and terrifying shakes, his body succumbed to his injuries, six days after a drive-by in Las Vegas. "The doctor came out and said that Tupac had stopped breathing three times, and that they had revived him three times and that every time they revived him, he just went back," said Afeni Shakur just five months later. "And I asked him to leave him alone and to let him go. I really felt it was important for Tupac,—who fought so hard to have a free spirit—I felt it was important for his spirit to be allowed to be free, you know? And so, I rejoiced with him and with the release of his spirit. I rejoiced then and I rejoice now, when I'm not crying." A hailstorm of bullets and a seizing of his body.
The circumstances that birthed All Eyez On Me, the Benny Boom-directed biopic, cheekily named after Tupac's fourth album, were created far before the start of the film's production. Released on June 16,—on what would've been Tupac's 46th birthday—the movie is as little about Tupac's real life as most media spectacles about Tupac happen to be. In it, Digital Underground's Money B plays as himself. Snoop Dogg offers a voiceover. Critics are not pleased, and neither are people for whom the film's creation is a personal insult—like Jada Pinkett-Smith and Malik Shakur. Money B when asked about Afeni's resistance to All Eyez On Me at the time of her death, alludes to the former Panther and extremely deft businesswoman as an emotional and grieving mother, unable to come to grips with the loss of her son, over two decades later. "Real talk! How you gonna make a movie about a man when you suing his mother to get the rights to tell his story?!" said John Singleton, who stepped down from the film's production. (Conflicting reports say that he was fired.) Rotten Tomatoes' review said it was "mostly a surface-skimming, by-the-numbers biopic of a larger-than-life icon." "Lacking much in the way of subtext, nuance or wisdom, this painfully formulaic biopic is artistically unworthy of its subject," said the Forbes review. "It is a soft-pedaled hagiography, one so concerned with presenting Tupac Shakur in a negative light that it forgets to paint him in an interesting one." Even 50 Cent said his piece.
This interest in documenting Tupac isn't new; arguably, whatever fame Tupac found in life grew exponentially after his death. And with that level of recognition comes revision. Take, for example, the branding by corporations such as Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, who were slapped with a $600 000 lawsuit by photographer Danny Clinch for using his portraits of Tupac without consent. In life, Thug Life (a.k.a. The Hate U Give Little Infants Fuck Everybody) landed him in court and invited unending harassment and controversy. In death, it's been effectively sanitized and decontextualized. What defined the lowest part of Tupac's short life, a significant era of mental and emotional fatigue, is repurposed as little more than big business branding, a mockery of its original intent.
All Eyez On Me is just one instance of smudging the fullness of Pac. So how are fans—fans of Tupac, fans of hip-hop, and everyone else who bought a ticket and watched it in spite of itself—complicit? How do we grapple with his legacy honestly and without dramatization, in all its prickliness? It should be clearer now, almost twenty-two years after the fact, that honoring our fallen, celebrity or otherwise, should be done with great care, and supported by more than our insatiable thirst for more and more and more. Especially someone like Tupac, who, in the same breath, is a celebrated dissenter and a hated gangster. An unfortunate condition of and the real root of the problem. And in an ideal world, news that Afeni Shakur—the sole proprietor of Tupac's estate before her death in 2016,—disapproved would be enough. News of Jada's pain at Boom's portrayal of her relationship with him would surely put an end to all hype. The shameful confession from Tupac's nephew, who says "imma level with y'all and let y'all know my dad is in All Eyez On Me playing his younger self shit is embarrassing", would seal its fate as a box office flop. But, instead, it made $27 million opening weekend.
This, however, isn't calling for a moratorium on necessary depictions of Tupac's life. Tupac's family has recently vocalized their support for the forthcoming feature-length documentary directed by Steve McQueen. Interscope's Tom Whalley, the estate's trustee and the same man who originally signed Pac will work with Amaru Entertainment, now headed by Afeni's sister, Gloria Cox to bring the documentary to life. As for McQueen, his stance is clear: "Few, if any shined brighter than Tupac Shakur, he said. "I look forward to working closely with his family to tell the unvarnished story of this talented man." For fans and rap enthusiasts alike, the prospect of this undertaking is much more appealing—and a seemingly ethical alternative to its silver screen counterpart.
Without the fame, Tupac lived what could be considered an ordinary, wholly American life. He was a child born into a home that was a home in name alone; grew up a curious, gifted adolescent with no resources; and, finally, dropped out of high school, chasing something he saw greater, sustained success in. And none of it mattered. At the end, he died in cold blood, unaccounted for. To the ones who understand,—the ones whose lives mirror his, in some capacity—Tupac's life was a story of hopelessness and avoidable, devastating tragedy. And to tell his story properly, all of the fragments that made the man need to be laid out as they are, with little manipulation and, at the very least, the blessings of his people. And if not, it's time to let Tupac's memory rest, once and for all.
Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter .