Awards Daily talks to director Allen Hughes of the Emmy-nominated documentary series Dear Mama about how he balanced the parallel stories of Afeni and Tupac Shakur and what it was like inserting himself into the story.
In 1993, Tupac Shakur and several of his cohorts assaulted filmmakers Allen Hughes and his brother Albert after they failed to save a role for him in their film Menace II Society. Now, 30 years later, the Emmy-nominated Hughes has directed the FX docuseries Dear Mama about the lives of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, which he says felt a bit like therapy.
“I didn’t realize [it was therapeutic] until these last past six months, where it’s been a completely cathartic experience,” says Hughes. “You can see it in the last five minutes of the movie. Plus, I gained a tremendous amount of compassion for Tupac that I just didn’t have before. I guess I hadn’t forgiven him for our personal thing. One of the things I’m proudest of when you look at the documentary medium, which is my favorite medium of film of all, even though I come from the features space, I look at docs like I look at hip hop. It’s one of those creative mediums that can consume anything in its path and become anything it wants at any time. I think the doc as a personal journey intertwined with the subject is an interesting dance that we may have seen before, but as long as one opens their heart and their mind and does that dance in a classy way, I think it can be a really rich experience for all.”
Despite having this really interesting connection to the subject, Hughes was very reluctant to address it or put himself on camera in the doc.
“I was against it the whole time, especially the part about going on camera. I knew we’d have to deal with the thing, but going on camera, my producers were keen on it. I said, I don’t know how you do that, that seems crazy. It seems arrogant, I just didn’t like it. Then, when it happened naturally on set with Tupac’s former managers Atron Gregory and Leila Steinberg and they both flipped it on me—you see it in real time and that’s what really happened. I look nervous because I was nervous.”
Dear Mama is the second docuseries in two years to follow a rapper’s journey from the point of view of someone tangentially connected to them (the first being 2022’s jeen-yuhs from Coodie and Chike Ozah), with both nominated for Emmys. Hughes thinks these connections add something to both stories.
“It’s an interesting richer journey sometimes when the person was there and they’re going through the conflict with the subject. They’re questioning the subject’s sanity and moral compass in real-time because they were close to the subject. That one was moving because of Coodie, the tussle that the filmmaker and the subject are having and those moral complexities. If you handle it the right way, the audience sees that tug of war.”
But as much as Dear Mama is about the short life of Tupac Shakur, it’s also about his mother, Afeni, a Black Panther who was pregnant with Tupac when she was in jail and successfully represented herself at trial. Hughes realized the best way to start the series and show the connection between the two was through a gripping opening story.
“How do we grab people’s attention, one? You gotta make an audience a promise and ask a question. Then, when I learned about what happened, him shooting those two off-duty cops and then everyone’s thinking they’re going to jail in the hotel room after. He’s in this trance and wants to play his demo for the first time. He’s calm and he plays ‘Dear Mama.’ I learned that in real-time in the interviews. Once we put that together, the biggest challenge was, when you open a movie called Dear Mama, how do we get the audience invested in this woman who they don’t know anything about? How do we put her at his level, make it that mythical, so they’re like, who is this woman? I believe you’re only as great as you’re opening scene. You gotta hook them to cook them, as they say in fisherman terms. This incident is when Tupac became mythical in the world and in the streets.”
Tupac and Afeni’s stories work in parallel storylines throughout the series, something Hughes says was challenging to the very end.
“The sins of the father fall upon the son, what about the actions and thoughts of the single mother? And when you look at that through that lens, it became simpler, but it was always difficult. There wasn’t a ton of material on either one of them in their formative stages. We discovered a bunch of archives that the family and estate didn’t even know existed. To try to maintain that time and place with minimal resources was more difficult.”
One of the most telling moments in the series comes when Tupac is in prison. He has a hit song (“Dear Mama”) and the No. 1 album, and yet he says, “I’m not winning no awards.” It’s a revealing look at what sadly is to come when he’s released and becomes aligned with Suge Knight and Death Row Records.
“There’s a real subtext that I don’t know if many people paid attention to in this film. ‘I’m gonna come out and give in to all this rock star shit and sell a ton of albums and have protection [almost like a mob]. I’m going right for the excess and what people are going to buy.’ I think he saw it as a means to an end. He saw the other side of it, but clearly, he got caught up and couldn’t get out of it, unfortunately.”
Dear Mama is streaming on Hulu on FX.