Dear Mama, a new five-part docuseries on the life and legacy of Tupac Shakur, is unlike any other deep dive on the legendary artist, says director Allen Hughes.
The Disney+ series, which focuses on Tupac and his late mother, Afeni Shakur, tells his story through the lens of her activism and struggles, providing a more rounded exploration of Tupac as opposed to a one-sided portrait of the artist.
“I wanted people to know when they saw the title, oh yeah, this ain’t gonna be no typical hip-hop shit,” Hughes told NME over a Zoom call. “If you’re gonna name something with Tupac Dear Mama, you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Hughes, the director of 2017 Netflix series The Defiant Ones, which charts the rise and success of Dr Dre and Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine, began working on the series after being approached by the estate of the Shakur family. “It’s been challenging working on it because unfortunately, the subjects, Afeni and Tupac, are no longer here with us,” Hughes revealed.
“There wasn’t a lot of stuff available on her so there was all the digging and searching and investigating. And then with him, you see him evolving constantly and it’s tough to navigate because as he’s growing, we have to make sure people understand why he’s making certain decisions.”
For Hughes, the choice to include Afeni’s story as well as Tupac’s was key to uncovering some unanswered questions about the artist and the events leading up to his death in 1996. “I just had a lot of questions about him that I wanted to answer that nothing had ever answered,” Hughes explained. “And I thought, I’ll find out about him through his mother. And the reason I felt that way is, having known him, I knew how intelligent his mother was, what an activist she was, what a social justice warrior she was – she was a legend.”
Afeni, a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, was one of 21 members of the party arrested and charged with several counts of conspiracy to bomb police stations and other public places in New York in 1969. Her work during the trial was essential in not only helping to expose the FBI’s corruption, but in saving the Panther 21.
“It’s crazy when you think about it,” Hughes said of his research on Afeni, “because why was it so hard for me to find footage of her, or images of her, or recordings of her? This woman represented herself during that trial when she was facing 300 plus years. She’s not in the history books? That makes no sense.”
Hughes’ exploration of Afeni’s unique history in Dear Mama sheds light on a tumultuous childhood and upbringing for Tupac, which in turn uncovered multiple surprising revelations about his life. Hughes mentioned one story in particular, which is not in the documentary, about Tupac as an eight-year-old, asked to sit on their stoop in Harlem and alert Afeni and her associates if he saw a federal agent.
“He blew his assignment because he’s an eight year old kid,” Hughes said. “And the punishment was severe. I thought Tupac seemed paranoid but I thought it was because he smoked too much weed. And it turns out, when you look at his childhood, you find out a lot of things I just didn’t know, about the FBI and the COINTELPRO programme, just obliterating his family, and what he had to be watchful for as a child. I didn’t know that the Panthers and also his family had expectations of him being a leader within the movement.”
In the series, we meet Tupac as a bright and passionate 17-year-old and through interviews with family members, Panther Veterans and other figures, Hughes gradually unveils his journey in activism and the pressure felt from his family to be a leader, as well as his initiation into hip-hop culture and by association, gangsta rap.
Hughes believed that Tupac lost his way, but where this is usually just a part of someone’s natural progression, Tupac’s life was unfortunately cut short at 25. “What I’ve learned is that the Death Row Records thing was just a pitstop. He had seven more albums planned. He had all this community activism stuff planned. He had all this social justice stuff planned, because he couldn’t escape it. It’s who he was, so I just wanted to get back to that.”
Dear Mama is also intriguing as a project due to Hughes’ own personal and stormy connection with Tupac. The Hughes Brothers hired Tupac to play a supporting role in their 1993 debut film Menace II Society, but after disagreements over his character, he was eventually fired. Just months later, Tupac crossed paths with Hughes, a meeting which resulted in a criminal conviction for Tupac for assault and battery.
“It definitely was cathartic to talk about,” Hughes said of his own appearance in the docuseries. “I wasn’t sure that I was ready to deal with that because he’s not here. So you’ve got to deal with death, you have to deal with what maybe wasn’t reconciled. What am I accountable for? What did I do wrong? And it ain’t easy. I didn’t want to be in the movie but I think I found a happy medium.”
Hughes is hopeful that the docuseries and his own inclusion in the film will resonate with a lot of people but also highlight the multiplicity and complexity of Tupac as an artist. An interview with Donald Hicken, Tupac’s drama professor from Baltimore School of Arts, for example, reveals what a chameleon he was in his ability to lose himself and inhabit other roles.
“Ultimately, I think when you look at his journey, you go, wow, the biggest loss outside of being a recording artist was that he would have been one of the greatest actors of our time, even now,” Hughes noted. “I would say he would have given Denzel [Washington] a real run for his money if he had been able to. I think he was, as we all are sometimes, somewhat a victim of our times.
“There’s a big difference between being self obsessed and self possessed,” he continued. “I think Tupac was self possessed and he moved with that feeling. And ultimately, you’re just talking about a poet, and you’re talking about poetry in motion – his life was his art. They always say great artists are out of step with their times.”
‘Dear Mama’ is streaming now on Disney+