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All Eyez on Me
In the Oscar-nominated 2015 musical biopic Straight Outta Compton, the fortunes of gangsta rap group N.W.A. briefly intersected with Tupac Shakur. It was a tantalising glimpse at one of the defining artists of a generation, who took hip hop by the scruff of its bling-laden neck in the 1980s and 1990s. Director Benny Boom throws the microphone solely to Shakur in All Eyez On Me and fashions two decades of political activism, gang warfare and strife into an overlong and dull montage of a life cut tragically short in a drive-by shooting on the brightly lit Las Vegas strip. Three screenwriters choose a clunky framing device to bring the central figure into woozy focus. A nameless interviewer (Hill Harper) visits Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr) in Clinton Correctional Facility in 1995, where he is serving time after being convicted of first-degree sexual abuse. "I have it on good authority that the FBI has a 4,000-page file on you," smirks the interviewer. "Only 4,000 pages?!" cockily replies the rapper. That cocksure swagger fails to translate to Boom's pedestrian picture, which never clearly conveys why US authorities might be gathering so much information on Shakur, and how a boy from humble origins in East Harlem impacted greatly on popular culture. The framing device fractures chronology for anyone, like me, who isn't au fait with Shakur's musical canon. In a series of flashbacks, Shakur recalls his formative years in New York City, watching police victimise his mother Afeni (Danai Gurira), who is a defiant and active member of the Black Panther Party. When he later ends up behind bars, she instructs him to remain strong. "Your body's in prison, not your mind," she growls. He forms a close friendship with Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) and joins the group Digital Underground before striking out on his own. Scenes from music videos are faithfully recreated. Ultimately, Shakur joins Death Row Records and forges a pact with the label's devil, Suge Knight (Dominic L Santana), who answers complaints from his artists with violence. Gradually, Shakur's friendship with fellow performer Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) deteriorates, lighting the fuse on the infamous east and west coast rap war. All Eyez On Me is littered with lyrical one-liners - "Don't let something you do for 50 seconds get you 50 years" - but a clear sense of what made Shakur tick is absent. Rather than lionising the singer turned actor, Boom's picture portrays him as deeply disagreeable: arrogant, selfish and tragically myopic in his pursuit of fame. His seminal songs including Brenda's Got A Baby and Keep Ya Head Up profess personal empowerment and courage in the face of adversity. Alas, Boom's disappointing sermon delivers a lesson about the corruptive power of celebrity that we have heard many times before, and from more charismatic preachers.