‘Dear Mama’: Through Afeni Shakur, Allen Hughes discovers Tupac

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

Official Trailer of “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur” documentary series on Hulu. Video by FX on Hulu.

Director Allen Hughes was initially hesitant to make a Tupac Shakur documentary. Allen and his brother had been friends with Shakur as they directed the rapper’s first three music videos in what Hughes calls an “intense year-long relationship.” After that, the Hughes brothers began shooting their 1993 debut film “Menace II Society,” but fired Shakur from playing one of the leading roles. Shakur and some associates assaulted Hughes, sending him to the hospital with minor injuries. Hughes filed charges, and Shakur spent 15 days in jail.

Thirty years after the assault, Hughes confronts the past with the FX documentary series "Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur." Unlike other documentaries about Tupac Amaru Shakur, a.k.a. 2Pac, Hughes takes an intimate look at the relationship between the rapper and his mother Afeni Shakur, a leader in the Black Panther Party in the late 60s. He also explores the life, legacy and the influence she had in her son’s career as an actor and one of the most influential and successful hip-hop/rapper recording artists of all time.

While the docu-series hit some delays, it premiered in April and has become one of the most watched unscripted series on FX. With help from the rapper’s state, Hughes wove together archival footage of Tupac and his mother, and fresh interviews with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mike Tyson, Eminem, family and friends to paint a picture of the complicated artist. It is now streaming on Hulu.

Hughes (“The Book of Eli”, “The Defiant Ones”) discusses his five-part FX doc series, his rocky relationship with the late rapper, how he unpacked the mythology of the larger-than-life star, and why examining the life story of Tupac’s mother was integral to the show. 

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: For people who know rap history, they might think you would be the last dude to do a docu series on Tupac because back in the 90s, he had a gang of guys attack you. He was upset that you and your brother Albert fired him from “Manace II Society.” Can you talk a little bit about how you rounded that corner and got to the point where you were able to talk to his family and the folks who run his estate about actually doing this.

Allen Hughes: The thing got started on “The Defiant Ones” because Tupac was featured heavily in part three of [the series] and that was the first part of the little emotional unlocking. I was like, “Well, this guy right here, I was a fan.” But it wasn't till I started cutting him and realizing something there. Then I had to deal with the estate. [It] had to come in and approve the edit, which was challenging. They were tough. And they got to know me. I knew Tom Whalley, but I didn't know the others and I definitely didn't know the family. 

So when [“Dear Mama”] came to me, I was like, “Wow!” I always thought it would be a great idea. I just didn't know if I was ready for it. I took a few days to think about it, and I go, “You know what? No better way for me to understand the misunderstandings that even the public has with this guy. He's one of the most misunderstood figures of the 20th century.” So sometimes the reluctant participant is the best one to helm the thing because you see the journey in the film, you see my journey of painting a portrait of him and his mother.

"The Defiant Ones” Official Trailer. Credit: Peacock on Hulu

KCRW: So when we talked about this last year, we talked a little bit about the assault, and you said that you didn't think that you had even fully processed the trauma of that attack. Could you take us back to that time, and what happened, and what you had to go through to get to the point where you could think about dealing with Tupac again?

Hughes: What happened was, there was a music video for the soundtrack to “Manace II Society,” and he kind of set a trap. I drove up with my brother and a friend and there he was with the 10-15 guys already. And then the attack took place. Not even a few weeks after that, we were at [the] Cannes Film Festival. We were the toast of the town with that film, [which] was highly successful. We were shocked because we weren't happy with the work we did, but the world was reacting to that film, the way we wanted him to react to the film we wanted to make. We were everywhere. We're doing press everywhere, so there was no time to think about that. 

Thank God, I didn't break any bones, but I did go to the hospital. I just was always happy that it wasn't my brother that got caught like I did because that would have been a problem to me. There was definitely trauma there. But big deal. I survived. Who cares? That's the way I look at it.

KCRW: Given that you had already made videos with him, I'm also wondering if you could take us back to when you first met Tupac and what did you make of this kid? Could you see the artists he was going to become when you first met him? I heard it was in a waffle house?

Hughes: I was up there meeting Money-B, DJ Fuze. They were doing an album, our first music video, and it was the whole Digital Underground crew, Shock G, everyone's there at the waffle house. But the kid at the end of the table, who was not a star, was the one that took all the attention and was the funniest, most charismatic person at the table, and I was taken with him immediately. When we went to the bathroom, he said, “Hey, I saw you guys short films. I'm gonna get you to direct my first music video.” And I [was] like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” 

[2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby”] is our first music video. I don't believe this guy, you know. And the next day was our first professional shoot day and I just kept asking and waiting, “Where's Tupac? Where's Tupac? Where's Tupac?” Until he showed up. And we did a scene and put him right in the middle of it. And that began an intense year long relationship, which included the three music videos we did for his debut album 2Pacalypse Now. We were really tight, so this wasn't just a professional relationship. This was a friendship as well.

Allen Hughes directed Tupac’s first three music video, including the 1992 single “Brenda's Got A Baby” from his debut album 2Pacalypse Now. Credit: 2Pac on Hulu

KCRW: Originally, this project I heard was supposed to be called “Outlaw.” But at some point, you decided you wanted Afeni Shakur to be a part of this, too. And the focus changed and the name changed. Can you talk a little bit about why you thought it was so important to include his mother in this story.

Hughes: It was something I related to. I was raised by a single activist mother. She was in the forefront of the women's rights movement, my mother, and we were on welfare, we weren't not well off. So I relate to those struggles. I see everything - my mom being a feminist and raising us to be feminist – I see the world through the prism, mostly of women. And so for me, that was my in. I'm like, if I can't tell this story through Afeni and discover Tupac through Afeni, then it's not worth doing. 

Plus, there's dozens of Tupac documentaries, most of them dealing with the salacious Death Row [Records] stuff and murder investigation. But, what's my approach here that's going to open this up to not just his fans, but to more people, that bring more people in a tent families, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers. My mission always is, how do we make this more of an inclusive journey, and that's going to be through Afeni’s journey.

KCRW: Her background in the Black Panther’s also sets up this really interesting tension between Tupac’s legacy as a possible leader, as an activist in the Black Panther’s, and his desire and ambitions as a performer, as a rapper, as an actor. How did you sort of get at those two things and make sure that people understood how he was torn between those two poles?

Hughes: You can see it once you start excavating all the footage, and when he was on track, and when he was acting out. He's so available to whatever thought or emotion. He'll say it. He says the struggle, the identity crisis he was having, and you see it in his art, you see it in his work. 

Tupac signed his record deal, I think three years too late, because the stuff he was talking about – all the like social justice stuff, and the African Centric stuff – that was 88-87 that was happening to hip hop. The X Clan, and a lot of Public Enemy, a lot of those groups are really thriving with those social justice messages. 

Come 91 when he signed his deal, it was N.W.A second album, “Niggaz4Life” [Efil4zaggin spelled backwards] and it is all gangsta rap. That's all he was concerned about. So you saw him struggle, his first two albums with the social conscious stuff, the social justice stuff, and then ultimately, you see what happened. He had to come meet people in the streets in order to get his message across. And maybe he got a little lost in that street culture, too.

KCRW: Another interesting element to me of this docu series is where his relatives talk about how his empathy level was high and one reason why he reacted the way he was, was because, if he saw a black person in trouble, he felt he needed to step in and help out. But he could also be really angry and violent, and you even experienced that. And so is that again, an example of these two sides kind of colliding that you had to capture in the film?

Hughes: With Tupac, there's always that duality and contradiction and everything in it. By the way, that's why we talk about him. Usually when you talk about anyone, any public figure who's affected people like that, he's got to be riddled with contradictions. Probably Tupac’s greatest weakness was, he had no control over his emotions and it's probably his greatest strength too. He had no control over his emotions. So people feel that. They feel that in the music, they feel that in the interviews that go wildly. He's a livewire. He's right there living on the edge and living his life out loud before that was even an expression.

Eric KCRW: That's something else that he says during the docu series, “This is what got me where I'm at. So, why would I change?”

Allen Hughes: Yeah. By the way in hip hop culture, you see it happening now, you're just trying to figure out what's gonna get people to listen to you. And he was always trying to figure that out, and once you figured it out, he may have taken [it] a little too far, but he figured it out. 

“Prelude” in N.W.A second album Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4Life). WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT. Credit: N.W.A on YouTube

KCRW: I want to talk a little bit about where the project landed. It's at FX and FX does have some great black centered shows like “Kindred,” but you don't necessarily think of FX [as] a destination for black-focused entertainment. So what made you think that FX would be the place for this docu series to lay on?

Hughes: There [were] a few things: I went out and pitched the idea to all the prominent streamers and cables I thought would be a good home for this. And I was always gonna go with the one that provided the most resources to make it and also understood how to market it and position it, so it would cut through. But the deciding factor for me was, first of all, the offer they made showed me they were serious. It was a big deal at the time, unprecedented. When John Landgraf, the head of FX, expressed to me that the reason why they bought it was because of the Afeni angle. That's when I knew this was the right place. 

I was always impressed, especially [in the] last few years, with the way they market the quality of their shows from “Atlanta” to “Snowfall.” The way they do black television is very artful, but the way they market their shows too was a big deal to me, so I felt it was the perfect place for Tupac.

KCRW: What blew me away about parts of this docu series, it felt like some of the material you got was so special. To hear Afeni talking about how she doesn't like jails or delivering some of her innermost thoughts. We don't really get to hear from her much in other documentaries, and you found audio of her talking. How did you find this material that feels like we hadn't heard it before? That feels very special.

Hughes: Some of it was out there already on the Tupac side. There's stuff we discovered on the Tupac side that was not there. But on Afeni side, there wasn't a lot out there. And to discover, especially back in her Panther days, even though film footage you see or the actual photos, a lot of those didn't exist before we dug them up. 

And all the audio from Afeni was mostly interviews she did after Tupac died or speaking engagements she did at colleges. The challenge with that was because she always put him on a pedestal and rarely talked about her own journey. So, that was very difficult to find her talking about her adolescence in New York, performing arts school, all the way up to the Panthers, the Panther 21 trial and post-Panther 21 trial, when Tupac was born. There's a lot of her journey that she never expressed, and we were lucky to find bits and pieces that make it seem like there was a lot, but there just wasn't a lot on her side.

"Dear Mama" music video. The song is from 2Pac’s third studio album, Me Against the World (1995). Credit 2Pac on YouTube

KCRW: Now, Tupac was killed in 1996, and it seems like his legend has only grown. I've seen you talk about balancing the myth of his life and his legend with the reality, particularly in this docu series. Can you talk a little bit about navigating that? And how you balanced sorting through all the myths about his life, and trying to communicate the reality of what actually existed?

Hughes: That's a great question because you've got to be careful when somebody is so revered and the stories become so mythical – whether it's the shooting of the two off-duty white police officers in Atlanta, or getting shot five times at the Quad Recording Studios, or a host of other things, and especially the Death Row [Records] era. 

The thing that I discovered is, there's truth to all of the mythology. It's all based in truth, so it's just the shades when you start to unpack some of it. And you gotta have a sense of humor about it, or none of it works either. I think this medium is changing, where we're showing people that documentary filmmaking always, historically, was an offshoot of serious journalism, and I think what's now happening is, there's a handful of filmmakers coming in and showing that this stuff can be really entertaining, it can be funny, it can be tear jerking, whatever films are, and whatever life is. 

So, I took all that into account in demystifying certain things. But also sometimes the more you unpack the mythology and the more you bring the subject down to earth where people can relate to him. I did this in “The Defiant Ones.” Then once they connect to him as a human being, then you could soar right back onto the stars again, and it's even more of an emotional journey. So my job is not to completely debunk everything. My job is to bring him down to earth, humanize him so everyone can connect with him, and then just rock it out into the universe again.

KCRW: Now, we're at a time and media where there are a lot of docu series about big artists that are created by, or overseen by the artist, or overseen by their estate. And sometimes it can be hard to be as honest as you want to be about the subject, when you know that the subject is involved. So you're working with his estate, you're working with his relatives. How tough was that, to say what you wanted to say about Tupac also knowing that his family was involved and they might not be comfortable with what you wanted to say?

Hughes: Before I answer that, any artist today that's living and is producing their own documentary on their life, and they get a credit, I don't think that's a good thing. If you got to do a documentary on your life and you’re a living artist, you make sure you get a great filmmaker that's going to challenge you, and make the journey worth taking. 

So that being said, there is a Tupac estate and there is the family, and we definitely had to partner with them because of all the axes, clearly. For the most part, it wasn't that difficult. And there were times where it was difficult where they may have felt that something shouldn't be in there, or they weren't comfortable with something in there. But to their credit, it was always a discussion. It was never like a mandate. It was always, “Why do you want this? Why is it so important to you?” It was always a discussion.

KCRW:  One of the things that I found really striking too, was how you use Mike Tyson. You've got a lot of great subjects in this doc: You got Snoop Dogg, you got Eminem, you got a lot of cool people. But you bring in Mike Tyson to sort of describe the mindset that Tupac was in the night that he was killed, and the attraction to violence. So could you talk a little bit about how you use Mike Tyson in particular, to sort of give the audience a window into what Tupac was feeling on the night he died?

Hughes: Mike, you got to give him credit because here's the other end of the spectrum, a guy that's available to whatever emotion he's in. He's very primal. But who has experienced more life that's alive today in our culture than Mike Tyson, who has come from the bottom, and seeing the best of the best, the worst of the worst. 

Mike Tyson has also become quite the philosopher, and I don't think people tap into that enough. So that's what I was tapping into, “What is the meaning of this? Why would someone do this? How would someone do this?” And he always came with these jewels. Some of the concepts that he puts out there, they're brutally honest. No one in his position would say half the things he said. There's particularly one in the opening of five that I'm not going to repeat that has to do with violence.  He was aroused by violence, and the way he says it. And by the way, there was debate about whether to keep that in the film or not. I'm like, he's saying the thing. You don't have to like him, whatever it is, but he's actually saying the thing and a lot of the discussion around what we now call toxic masculinity, Mike is a great prism into that.

KCRW: I hear you're working on some other biopics that I'm really interested to hear where you are with them. Marvin Gaye and Snoop Dogg, on Snoop’s own sort of movie label? Can you talk a little bit about those? 

Hughes: Marvin Gaye’s, the script is ready. Everything's ready. Then Snoop comes with this fast-track project at Universal, biopic, and I go, “Wow, I should probably do this first because: one I adore him, he is a man like his evolution, and two, this is an opportunity to do a hood film that actually is inspiring, that transcends the hood, and I know the culture around it. And I said, “Let me do this first because Marvin Gaye's while it's ready it's a lot more complex, musically, and sonically, and I'm gonna need to get back in game shape and do something that's actually close to my experience and that's Snoop’s biopic.”

KCRW: I could never have imagined. When I was a kid listening to Snoop, that dude wound up becoming almost a teddy bear. It's kind of amazing what he's done.

Hughes: He is a real special dude. One of the other reasons I want to do the film now is because outside of Muhammad Ali, Snoop has that type of international love energy that brings people together and makes people smile. And I go there's some magic. There's magic in that dude, man. There's something very magical about someone that comes from where he comes from, and when your grandmother sees them, whether they're Asian, Black, White, Latin, they smile. 90-year-old people smile when they see Snoop. 

KCRW: That's amazing. Tupac had that too.

Hughes: Tupac had it in a different way - A little more dangerous. Snoop comes from a place of danger, but he's figured out how to become, as Jimmy Ivan says, PG-13.




Eric Deggans


Joshua Farnham