The Tupac Shakur biopic, a decade in the making, is finally here. Legal battles between Morgan Creek Productions and Tupac’s estate were the main reason it took so long. Another factor was director changes; Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton and Carl Franklin were all previously attached to the project, each departing over creative differences with Morgan Creek’s point man, LT Hutton. Benny Boom, a virtual rookie without any notable movie credits and mostly directed music videos, stepped in.
As per the legal settlements, if production on this movie didn’t start by the end of 2015, Morgan Creek would lose the rights to Tupac’s music. So in December 2015, they started production without any major studio backing. Benny Boom had just joined the project that same month.
Made independently and then picked up by Lionsgate, it has the feel of a high-end indie movie. The best thing in it is Demetrius Shipp Jr as Tupac Shakur. He looks like him, moves like him and generally turns in a solid performance in a very difficult to pull off role. Most of the actors do their jobs well.
The first half of the movie is built around an interview in prison, jumping from point to point in Tupac’s upbringing and pre-prison career. The flashbacks are chronological, but sometimes jarring. Some are rushed through via voiceover, some unfold as chapters of their own. This makes for awkward pacing, but packs in a lot of content as well.
There is still lots of good stuff skipped over. The Thug Life group, including Stretch, is conspicuously missing. We hear “So Many Tears” reference Kato, a Thug Life associate that was murdered, but that story isn’t in the movie either. LaTasha Harlins, a girl murdered by a store clerk over a bottle of juice, who Tupac very publicly spoke out for, isn’t referenced at all. Neither are the L.A. riots or Poetic Justice, the movie Tupac was filming at the time. After getting shot in New York, Tupac was getting threatening phone calls in the hospital. Those are left out too, and no reason is given for him leaving the hospital against doctor’s orders. That’s a potentially great scene left on the table. He goes from getting shot to fully recovered in what felt like 2 minutes. You can only fit so much into 2.5 hours, I suppose.
The second half of the movie is where he gets out of jail and joins Death Row. My wife — not as familiar with Tupac’s story as I am — found this part far superior to the “jumpy” first half. It certainly flows smoother. It also shifts the focus exclusively to Tupac’s entertainment career and personal relationships, leaving out the political content the first half explored. The East Coast/West Coast beef is shown but on a surface-only level. There are no Makaveli studio session scenes, but they do go into Tupac’s future plans if he had lived.
David Kenner, gangster lawyer turned record label executive, is barely shown. He is sitting there when Suge convinces Pac to join Death Row in prison, but it’s never explained who he is. By all accounts, he was the co-head of Death Row along with Suge. Tupac fired him as his representative days before his death and had called for an audit of Death Row, events Kenner surely didn’t take kindly to. There’s no holding back showing Suge’s mob-like ways, but there’s no exploration of Kenner at all. Puffy is also shown briefly but not highlighted or explored as a character at all. When “Who Shot Ya” was played earlier in the film, it’s turned off right before the line “you rewind this, Bad Boy’s behind this”, which would have made for a more powerful scene.
Finally, we have that last night in Vegas. It’s done well until the last ride in the car with Suge. Tupac insisted on riding with Suge, without his bodyguard, so he could play him some R&B? Not to talk business at all? It didn’t ring true. It’s also known that just before the last picture and shooting, their car was pulled over by police for noise and license plate issues. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want to feed into the conspiracy theories, but that part of the movie should have had a lot more tension.
If anything, this movie confirmed that Tupac’s full story has to be done in a miniseries where runtime is not an issue and you can just do more episodes instead of rushing through and skipping over things. His story fits the series format better, with people and themes showing up, disappearing and reappearing constantly throughout.
There’s 100 different movies you can make about Tupac. This isn’t the best one, but it’s still worth a watch. It gives a solid surface-level review of his different sides and the events that shaped his life. There will be more Tupac projects in the future. Hopefully this film’s existence will allow future projects to be more focused and go deeper on specific aspects rather than try to fit as many events as possible into a limited runtime.