Posted on June 22, 2017
The brief but always compelling life of Tupac Amaru Shakur felt practically written for the silver screen. It had all the elements of a blockbuster: an enigmatic hero, a rogues gallery of villains, sex, violence, a triumphant rise, a tragic downfall, and a ready-made soundtrack of hits. Tupac, who was unusually self-aware for someone so young, knew how captivating his every move was – “I feel so confident and so sure about the man that I am that you can watch me when I fail, when I cry, when I get shot, when I got to jail, when I die – you can watch it.” His compulsion to reveal himself made him a magnet for criticism. Music journalist Touré claimed that his public persona was an elaborate, self-destructive, performance. Noted cultural critic / jazz enthusiast Stanley Crouch described him as an “anarchic individualist” who corrupted America’s youth. Whoever Tupac truly was, few have been ambivalent about his passion for dramatizing his own life and the lives of others. Tupac was not just a music icon. He was a multi-talented artist who sometimes characterized his rap career as a means to an end – “I’m an actor. I just happen to rap in my spare time instead of being a waiter,” he explained on the set of Gridlock’d in 1996.
Given Tupac’s incredible life and flair for the dramatic, it should surprise no one that Hollywood has been itching to tell his story for more than twenty years. Within months of his death on September 13, 1996, HBO Films announced an adaptation of Armond White’s (yes, that Armond White) book, Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur, for cable. If you are now asking yourself, “How did I miss an HBO film about Tupac,” stop – it never materialized, becoming the first of many failed attempts to portray ‘Pac’s life. Over the past two decades, only the excellent, Academy Award-nominated, documentary Tupac: Resurrection made it to theaters. Until now.
On Friday, June 16, 2017, a day on which Tupac should have celebrated his 46th birthday, Summit Entertainment / Morgan Creek Entertainment released All Eyez On Me, the already controversial film that purports to tell the “Untold Story of Tupac Shakur,” to theaters everywhere. All Eyez On Me has walked a long, perilous, road to your local cinema and, contrary to what you may have read online, it was not greenlit in order to capitalize on the success of the 2015 N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton. All Eyez On Me was first announced in February 2011 after years in “development hell” and went through three different directors (Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, and Carl Franklin) before Benny Boom (Next Day Air) got the nod.
The filming of All Eyez On Me began in December 2015, years after the settlement of a lawsuit between Morgan Creek and Amaru Entertainment over the rights to Tupac’s story and just days before the expiration of Morgan Creek’s rights to Tupac’s music. Shooting wrapped in April 2016 and the film’s supporters within the Hip Hop community have been working hard to generate interest and secure distribution ever since. One of the film’s producers, L.T. Hutton, who worked on Tupac songs like “Watch Ya Mouth” at Death Row Records, has promoted the film online, on television, and in person around the country. Rap artists who knew or admire Tupac, like Snoop Dogg and The Game, have praised the project. The film’s pre-release acclaim has come from at least one surprising source. Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, the Bad Boy Records founder who former L.A.P.D. detective Greg Kading has accused of putting a million dollar murder contract out on Tupac and Suge Knight, was reportedly moved by a screening. One very important party has refused to participate in the campaign. Tupac’s estate, now overseen by former Interscope executive Tom Whalley, has been eerily quiet. Weeks before All Eyez On Me’s release, the estate announced a new Tupac documentary directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave and Shame).
All Eyez On Me, which is approximately two hours and twenty minutes long (twenty-five minutes shorter than an earlier, pre-Summit Entertainment, cut), attempts to tell the entire story of Tupac’s life. [SPOILERS AHEAD.] In fact, it begins before Tupac is even born. The film opens with Afeni Shakur (played by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira), who is visibly pregnant with Tupac, giving a speech on the steps of a New York City courthouse following her exoneration in the Panther 21 trial. The film then fast forwards more than twenty years to Tupac’s incarceration in Upstate New York. A prison interview of Tupac frames the film’s depiction of his first 24 years. Some of the scenes from this first part of All Eyez On Me include:
As long as All Eyez On Me is, that is still an awful lot of ground to cover and the film moves quickly from point to point in Tupac’s life. It hits all of the important markers but hardcore Tupac fans are unlikely to learn very much and those who are less familiar with his life may find it hard to follow. To be completely honest, Tupac’s complicated, eventful, life may best suited for a mini-series on an outlet like HBO or Netflix.
Following the wrap-around interview’s conclusion, All Eyez On Me proceeds to Tupac’s release from prison and the last eleven months of his life. Some of the moments from Tupac’s Death Row Records era that are portrayed in the film include:
Two things are noticeably absent from the end of the film: (1) the six days that Tupac spent fighting for his life at University Medical Center in Las Vegas; and (2) an exploration into who may have been responsible for his murder. The film ends as Tupac is pulled from Suge’s BMW and placed on the asphalt in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip. It does not include Tupac’s infamous alleged last words – “Fuck you” to the police officer who was questioning him about his shooter’s identity.
Because I am not a film critic, I am not going to analyze the merits of this film’s direction, editing, cinematography, or acting in great detail. As someone who has studied Tupac’s life and music for over twenty years, however, I do want to provide a few of the stray observations I made in my notebook as I watched the film. Below are a sample of them:
Although I do not think that All Eyez On Me is an ideal Tupac biopic, I did find reasons to applaud it. I believe that the people who are responsible for its production sincerely wanted to do Tupac’s story justice when making it. People who are interested in Tupac’s life, whether they are longtime fans or just curious about him, should see the film and make up their own minds about its merits.
Despite negative reviews and criticism from some people who knew Tupac, All Eyez On Me scored a forceful defense from Hip Hop journalist Ben Westhoff in L.A. Weekly and has been well-received by most audiences. It performed well at the box office its opening weekend, surprising industry analysts by earning more than $26 million. Whether or not the film will have legs at the box office remains to be seen.
One last note: although producer L.T. Hutton has discussed a soundtrack for All Eyez On Me in interviews, no release date has been set for one. I have created a playlist featuring most of the music featured in the film. You can stream it here on Apple Music.
Posted on June 16, 2017
June 16th is always an important day for Tupac Shakur’s family, friends, and fans. To celebrate what should have been Tupac’s 46th birthday, I wanted to share an excerpt from my upcoming book, Lost in the Whirlwind: A Guide to the Music and World of Tupac Shakur, with you. I have chosen the section of the book about my favorite Tupac album – The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.
Below you will find a link to a .pdf copy of the excerpt. At the beginning of the section excerpted are general details about the album.
Following that is my discussion of it, after which is a list of related articles elsewhere in the book.
Posted on April 27, 2017
At a time when “realness” was practically everything in Hip Hop culture, one of the most infamous unions of rap music and the street was allegedly forged between Death Row Records, the label co-founded and once run by Marion “Suge” Knight, and the MOB Piru Bloods, a gang rooted in the east side of Compton, California. Rumors over the nature of the relationship between those organizations have spread over the past twenty years but few people with personal knowledge have been willing to speak about the subject on the record.
Former L.A.P.D. detective Greg Kading and documentary filmmaker Mike Dorsey are two of the people who have worked to shed light on the alleged history of Death Row and the MOB Piru. Their 2015 film, Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders, revealed much about the feud between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. They have continued their investigation since Murder Rap’s release and recently interviewed James “MOB James” McDonald, a former MOB Piru member with intimate knowledge of what went on behind the scenes at Death Row.
James McDonald is the brother of Alton “Bountry” McDonald, a MOB Piru who was murdered on April 3, 2002 and was once one of Suge Knight’s closest friends. James knew Suge since they were teenagers, did security for Suge prior to the formation of Death Row, and is the person who introduced Suge to Alton and the rest of the MOB. According to James, Suge was never really a gang member but he used the MOB as a tool to build his fearsome reputation. The relationships between Suge, Death Row, and the MOB were symbiotic at first. MOB members lent street credibility to the label and acted as muscle for Suge and artists like Tupac at concerts and events. In exchange, Suge gave the MOB members who were closest to him the promise of a better life: the glamour of being associated with rap’s hottest label and cars, houses, jewelry, and money whenever the MOB felt like leaning on Suge for gifts. Over time, the relationships soured. The MOB was left holding the bag when Suge went to prison and, according to James, was never fairly compensated by Suge for its services. More tragically, MOB Piru infighting related to Death Row allegedly led to the deaths of Alton and others like Wardell “Poochie” Fouse, the man Greg Kading believes murdered The Notorious B.I.G.
During his interview, James also talks about Tupac’s transformation over the course of his eleven months on Death Row. The fact that the ordinary rules of MOB initiation did not apply to Tupac because of his money and fame did not stop him from acting like he was part of the gang. James was put off by Tupac’s representation of the MOB and complained to Suge about the “M.O.B.” tattoo on Tupac’s right arm. From James’ point of view, Tupac was playing a very dangerous game. He believes Tupac sealed his own fate when he decided to “prove himself” by attacking South Side Compton Crip Orlando Anderson at the MGM Grand in retaliation for Anderson’s attempted robbery of alleged MOB Piru associate Trevon Lane earlier that summer at the Lakewood Mall. James does not mince words when it comes to the role that Suge played either. He also blames Suge for not shielding Tupac from the street politics he had no business being involved in.
James also confirms a number of other allegations in the Murder Rap documentary. He recalls that the rumored bounty allegedly placed on Death Row jewelry, which precipitated the Lakewood Mall incident, escalated the rivalry between the MOB and the South Side Crips. On the night that Tupac was fatally wounded, James was posted in the parking lot of Club 662, awaiting the arrival of Suge, Tupac, the Outlawz, and various other Death Row / MOB members. James observed South Side Crips inside of a Cadillac that was briefly parked in the lot prior to the shooting of Suge’s BMW. He called his brother, Alton, who had been involved in the beat down of Orlando Anderson at the MGM, and warned him that the “Southside is up here.” For whatever reason, James’ warning was not heeded and Death Row’s entourage proceeded toward 662 apparently unconcerned by the possibility of a drive-by shooting.
James’ interview also corroborates that the MOB Piru knew that the South Side Crips were responsible for what happened. Shortly after the shooting, MOB members arrived at 662 and spread word that “the South Side dumped on us.” James explains the motivation behind the war that took place in Compton in the aftermath. Although Tupac was not a bona fide MOB Piru member, he was killed on their watch and the MOB had no choice but to retaliate in order to protect its credibility.
At the end of his interview, James confesses the regret he has for what happened to his brother. He feels responsible for introducing Alton to Suge and holds Suge responsible for the hazardous lives led by every MOB Piru who knew him.
Posted on September 13, 2016
Posted on February 19, 2016