Tupac Shakur would have been 46 today had he not been gunned down in a still-unsolved incident in Las Vegas more than two decades ago. In his honor, the biopic All Eyez On Me is in theaters from music video director Benny Boom with actor Demetrius Shipp Jr. as the iconic rapper and future Marvel star Danai Gurira playing his mother, Afeni Shakur. The 140-minute film is not getting great reviews, so you might want to skip it. Whether you see it or not, I’ve selected eight other titles that are essential viewing, at least if you’re interested in the real Tupac and Afeni, as well as his movie career and better portrayals elsewhere.
If we don’t count his appearance as a member of Digital Underground in Nothing But Trouble, this movie marked his feature debut as an actor, and it immediately cemented him as not just one of the better rappers-turned-thespians but simply a great screen talent, period. As we see in All Eyez On Me, he was interested in acting from a young age and not just some music star looking to branch out into film. The biopic also depicts Shipp as Tupac making the movie.
In Juice, Tupac plays Bishop, a thug role he reportedly embodied method-style and a character he’d be associated with for years. One year later, he co-starred in the romantic drama Poetic Justice as a more respectable and responsible character, and he felt the two roles represented two opposing sides of himself. That makes it sound like they came easy to him, but he showed a promising range between the two movies.
This year is the 25th anniversary of Juice, the better of them, and there’s a new home video release commemorating the occasion with an alternate ending. Our own Kieran Fisher wrote more on the the coming-of-age crime drama this week, calling it a gem that has stood the test of time and praising Tupac’s performance. “His legacy in hip hop was solidified the day his first album dropped,” he writes, “but his acting shouldn’t be overlooked either. He was pretty dope when it came to both.” I have to agree.
Menace II Society (1993)
From Poetic Justice, Tupac was next cast in this first feature by Allen and Albert Hughes. It would have been his one movie role opposite his longtime friend Jada Pinkett, who is portrayed by Kat Graham in All Eyez On Me. The two did wind up sharing the screen in an episode of the TV show A Different World, but it’s surprising given their apparent bond that they didn’t do more work together.
The reason Tupac isn’t actually in Menace II Society is because he was fired after a heated disagreement about the role he was to play, Sharif (Vonte Sweet in the finished film). He and his entourage beat up Allen Hughes, and Tupac wound up doing 15 days in prison for the assault. That was before the jail time for sexual assault depicted in All Eyez On Me, though the incidents happened around the same time, in the fall of 1993.
Biggie & Tupac (2002)
If you’re not familiar with Nick Broomfield and his signature style of documentary, Biggie & Tupac might come across as a terrible way to present the story of Biggie Smalls and Tupac’s mysterious murders. I’m pretty sure I first heard of this film through commercials selling it on TV, and I’m sure anyone who found it that way was disappointed. Similar reactions came about years earlier with the release of Broomfield’s controversial Kurt & Courtney.
Broomfield is an acquired taste, or maybe someone you have to get used to. His old films are more suited for fans of his work rather than those interested in the subject matter. Biggie & Tupac isn’t a documentary to go to for a lot of answers. Not that there are any, really. But Broomfield investigates the cases as he does and raises some questions along the way. He also gives us a lot of great scenes with Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace.
Baadasssss Cinema (2002)
As for Tupac’s mom, she’s not interviewed in Biggie & Tupac, but she made an appearance the same year in this documentary about blaxploitation cinema. She’s actually not the most relevant or necessary talking head in the film. She’s mostly here to talk about the influence of the black power movement, of which she was a part, on blaxploitation, and blaxploitation’s influence on her son. The former could have been addressed by anyone.
Frankly, it’s not a great documentary in general, and there are other interviews that might have been best left on the cutting room floor. However, there are some expert voices (including my old NYU professor Ed Guerrero) offering an introductory lesson on films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I mostly just include it as the first film that shows Afeni direct and personal rather than through archive footage or a fictionalized portrayal.
Tupac: Resurrection (2003)
If you’re looking for a documentary actually about Tupac, his life and career and all that, this one should do. It’s not exactly an exhaustive biography, and the fact that Afeni is an executive producer will explain why more of the negative light is not shown (or shone). She doesn’t appear on screen in this one either, though, because it’s not a conventional talking-head-style music doc. Instead it’s a compilation of interviews with Tupac, much of them presented just through audio as a kind of posthumous narration.
Tupac: Resurrection was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which would have been a surprise even if 2004 (when it hit theaters) hadn’t been an amazing year for nonfiction cinema. It’s good, not great. I like a little more consistency in the framework of this type of doc. They either need to center on one strong interview and a more uniform visual aesthetic or involve archival footage of more alternative perspectives and commentary.
Still, it’s the most interesting and polished Tupac doc I’ve seen — the 30 for 30 doc A Night in Vegas is also good, though it’s more focused on Mike Tyson and his fight the night Tupac was shot — and anyway if it’s the original spot where we got to see the Tupac and Jada “Parents Just Don’t Understand” video, it deserves respect. That thing is better than any scenes between Shipp and Graham in All Eyez On Me.
Notorious (2009) and Straight Outta Compton (2015)
In a way, All Eyez On Me is like a sequel, or side-quel, to the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious. After all, Jamal Woolard, who plays Biggie there, reprises his role in the Tupac-focused film. Never mind that we’ve got a different guy playing the “Dear Mama” performer. In Notorious, it’s Anthony Mackie, who is likely too big a deal since joining the Avengers. Why the new movie couldn’t get Marcc Rose, who does a fine job as Tupac in Straight Outta Compton (with vocals dubbed by Darris Love), I don’t know. It’d have been consistent.
Between the three movies, we could have been seeing a new cinematic universe developing based on ’90s hip-hop. Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold in Notorious, R. Marcos Taylor in Straight Outta Compton, and Dominic L. Santana) would be both the Nick Fury and the Thanos of the franchise. And next we’d get the Snoop Dogg biopic starring Lakeith Stanfield reprising the part from Compton. Yes, I wrote all about my wishes for these things two years ago when this Tupac film was about to go into production. The idea still stands, even if the actors haven’t stuck to their respective parts.
Even without consistency in casting or any association whatsoever among these projects, watched together they still piece together a time and scene and industry from different viewpoints unlike any other group of movies based on real people. Maybe Andy Warhol has a kind of cinematic universe given his many portrayals in other people’s biopics. J. Edgar Hoover would be another. Notorious, Compton, and All Eyez On Me are a little tighter in their connection to each other, though. Maybe now that we’ve got a Pinkett portrayal, next up should be a Will Smith biopic with Graham reprising the role.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
For the last of this week’s recommendations, I figured I should take a departure from movies involving the real Tupac as an actor or a character or a subject and instead select another movie that pays him tribute. The coming-of-age comedy stars breakout teen actor Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, an orphan boy who for his birthday gets a dog. He names the pet “Tupac” after his “hero” and runs away with him on an adventure in the New Zealand bush.
That’s not all, either, as Ricky Baker also likes to utter a twist on Tupac’s famous quote “I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me.” He replaces “thug” with “skuxx” (Kiwi slang for someone skilled with the ladies, I believe). The movie is very funny and takes a surprisingly action-packed turn in the end. The writer/director is Taika Waititi, who previously co-directed the hilarious What We Do in the Shadows and is next helming Thor: Ragnarok. After you’ve chosen all the thug life films, the skuxx life film chooses you.