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Preserve Yourself!

“All Eyez on Me” and the hologram-art of black musical mortality

The new Tupac Shakur biopic, All Eyez on Me, is for the most part a bad popcorn movie. The plot follows Pac’s life in rote fashion, using a familiar paint-by-numbers prison interview and flashback structure to carry us through the rapper’s biography as seamlessly as possible. At times the approach feels like nothing more than a convenient excuse for director Benny Boom, known for helming music videos, to photograph Tupac (Demetrius Shipp, Jr.) in concert or mimic the mood of his MTV staples. But there are moments that, unwittingly or not, turn the film into a more impressive thing. Twenty minutes in, after some rather lifeless vignettes of the rapper’s fascinating early years—his childhood with a famous Black Panther mother, Afeni (Danai Gurira); a formative friendship with actress Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham); a lucky break performing with the Digital Underground—something happens.

Since his death, Tupac’s “family crest” has morphed into a culture of branded merch, “Thug Life” screen-printed trinkets, and funny animal memes.

Tupac walks into a meeting with two Interscope Records executives. They’re prepping the release of his first album, 2Pacalypse Now, but they don’t want the song “Brenda’s Got a Baby” on the record because, they say, it’s too depressing. Tupac and the record execs go back and forth about the merits of including the song, with the rapper adamant that “Brenda,” a paean to an abused twelve-year old mother, should appear because it’s real, and because it tells the life of a person who isn’t valued by society. His voice is all the girl has, Tupac says, and by including the song he can give her story back. While the executives may leave behind the legacy of a business empire, Pac surmises, black artists’ “family crest is cotton. The only thing we can leave behind is our culture.”

Since his death, Tupac’s “family crest” has morphed into a culture of branded merch, “Thug Life” screen-printed trinkets, and funny animal memes. Meanwhile, his musical legacy has been maintained by a 2017 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a litany of posthumous albums; Holler If Ya Hear Me, a short-lived Broadway musical; and through the admiration of younger rappers like Kendrick Lamar, who held a shadow interview with Tupac at the end of “Mortal Man,” the final track from his Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly.

But it’s hard to imagine that All Eyez On Me will contribute much to this legacy. Sure, it offers a worthwhile critique of music industry exploitation and provides a glimpse of Tupac’s claustrophobic years with Death Row Records, but it’s nevertheless a lackluster portrayal of Pac’s life, a self-righteous hagiography that fails to engage meaningfully with his contradictions. Those who knew him have slammed the film on similar grounds. Director John Singleton, who directed Tupac in Poetic Justice and had been attached to direct All Eyez at one point, announced his departure from the project by warning, “The people involved aren’t really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur.” Tupac’s friend Jada Pinkett has also come out against the film, saying, “My relationship to Pac is too precious to me for the scenes in All Eyez On Me to stand as truth . . . The reimagining of my relationship to Pac has been deeply hurtful.” All told, those interested in learning about Tupac’s life should listen to his music, buy the book his mother wrote, read the poetry published after his death, or watch Tupac: Resurrection, a documentary released in 2003.

Nonetheless, All Eyez on Me is not a total failure—against its own grain, it becomes a genre send-up. It all begins in the Interscope office, when the “Brenda” debate rages—the film starts to double in on itself, transforming into a meta-critique of like-minded biopics. It comments, however inadvertently, on the strange task of recreating a famous life. It seems that Snoop Dogg has dubbed the dialogue for the actor who plays him. Rapper Maino appears as Tupac’s would-be-assassin, and Jamal “Gravy” Woolard shows up yet again as the late Biggie Smalls, reprising his role from 2009’s Notorious, extending his presence in this Marvel-esque universe. The casting of those rappers creates a weird feedback loop. (What do rappers do when their careers wane? They play bit parts in movies that are tangentially related to their own lives.) Former music mogul and industry bully Suge Knight’s reappearance on-screen (and off-screen)—as a villain against artists—remakes him into a real-life Lex Luthor. His red-cloaked presence imports that rap biopics are the new comic books—cultural folklore studios are hoping to turn into everlasting franchises. Even when audiences tire of yet another Batman flick, they’ll gladly hand over $12 to see The Suge Knight.

And, of course, All Eyez On Me presents its superhero. Throughout its more that two-hour runtime, there are millisecond documentary shots of the real Tupac cut between sequences of his actorly double, Demetrius Shipp Jr., including scenes-within-scenes of the Tupac character on the set of several films. After one performance, Tupac stands bare-chested on a stage, enshrined in light as if he were projected. He has merged, it seems, with his fabled Coachella hologram, which has the effect of imbuing him simultaneously with superhuman immortality and total transience.

Where All Eyez On Me fails as a worthy representation of Tupac—or as a decent film—it succeeds, despite itself, as a commentary on the state of the black music biopic, a sub-genre that seems to be growing exponentially as new artists announce projects.

Following the critical acclaim and box-office success of F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, several rappers and R&B artists announced biopics in the works. A little more than a year later, Surviving Compton, the life story of Michel’le, the singer and ex-partner of Dr. Dre, premiered on Lifetime. Along with Surviving Compton, feature films and television movies about the lives of Toni Braxton and New Edition have aired on Lifetime and BET, respectively. And in the past six months alone, OutKast, Master P, Tha Dogg Pound, Xscape, Three 6 Mafia, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and 2 Live Crew have all hinted at biopics in the works—or at least expressed a desire to have one made.

Of course, there were films on black musicians before Straight Outta Compton. Biopics about Tina Turner, The Jacksons, The Temptations, Frankie Lymon, TLC, James Brown, Aaliyah, and Whitney Houston all aired previously. But the sheer glut in biopics since the summer of 2015 has raised several questions. Why the deluge now? And why so young? Unlike the earlier films about canonical rap and R&B figures like Houston and Motown-era stars, the subjects of many of the forthcoming biopics are fairly youthful. Most are under fifty.

Paradoxically, this prematurity might be due to the fact that rap is slowly becoming oldies music, which means that white audiences will buy tickets—these biopics are suitably anodyne. (We live in a world where Hamilton is the most popular musical of a generation.) So younger artists are understandably hungry for a piece of a larger pie. Straight Outta Compton made $200 million worldwide, and it’s probably hard to pass up the idea of getting in on a property like that, especially given the changing music industry, which does not pay as well as it used to—for some, maybe it never did pay well.

Compton is also a pretty good film, and it has served to legitimize N.W.A.’s legacy. And, post-Compton, the black music biopic offers a form of mainstream recognition that, despite the outsiderness that many of these artists have always embraced, they yearn for. As Jon Lisi explained of film historian Tina Balio’s theory in a PopMatters piece on biopics a few years ago, “Hollywood produced life-spanning biopics at a rapid pace in the ‘30s in an attempt to garner prestige.” The same thing is happening now, with individual artists driving the trend. To illustrate this increasing cultural legitimacy, The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series on Dr. Dre and Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine, will air on HBO in July.

Still, a hidden catalyst for the precipitous rise in these films might be the frequent flaming out of black superstars over the last few years. Since Compton’s premiere, Prince, one of the biggest artists in the world, passed away. Four years before Prince’s death last April, Whitney Houston was found drowned in a bathtub. Two and a half years before Houston’s demise, Michael Jackson dropped dead. Following the death of Houston in February 2012, the musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson told writer Touré, “I’m obsessed with why our heroes are not making it past fifty.” In a 2016 episode of The Champs podcast, Thompson explained the breakdowns associated with famous black artists: “By forty-five, someone has religion—Prince has religion. Someone has drugs or alcohol—DMX . . . we can just start naming stuff. Some just couldn’t make it and find a way to die already. Some people go crazy, or . . . whatever.”

Black musical biopics recall those celebrity holograms—it’s a trend that says more about mortality than art.

In a 2015 essay, Claudia Rankine explained, through the words of a friend, that the “condition of black life is one of mourning,” and that’s what this spate of biopics suggests to me. The recent public mourning of black celebrities has likely provoked artists to look after their legacies. Perhaps, too, these highly public, collective acts of mourning offer a way for artists to mourn themselves—to get their flowers while they can still smell them. In this respect, these biopics again recall those celebrity holograms—it’s a trend that says more about mortality than art. Paul Debevec, a USC film professor, told Rolling Stone, “If I were one of these folks concerned about their legacy . . . I would say, ‘Before you get a day older, get yourself scanned in high resolution. Preserve yourself!'”

A biopic, like a hologram, offers a way to be scanned in high resolution. Yet All Eyez on Me is not the preservation of a legacy; it’s an experiment in IP. As more legendary black artists pass away, I’m sure the urge to make more movies (and more money) will keep apace. But maybe, as with those holograms, audiences will grow tired of these highly staged, emotionally artificial reenactments of their favorite musicians.

In one scene from the film, Tupac is upset about media coverage following his rape trial. His former manager Atron Gregory tells the rapper, “The picture you paint with your pen, that’s your story. The picture the media paints with theirs is their story.” Given the artistic and critical and commercial failures of all but a few of these biopics, let’s hope the artists gearing up to make their own films have a Gregory in their ear offering the same wisdom. In that case, the understandable urge to produce these films may find its artistic form. It’s better to exercise creative control now, while you can, than to be turned into a hologram once you’re gone.