Celebrate Tupac’s birthday with the new biopic and more.
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.