Allen Hughes’ docuseries “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur” strives for nothing less than to be a complete account of rapper Tupac Shakur. But to do that, Hughes reckons, one must understand the story of his Black Panther revolutionary mother, Afeni. She was an outspoken leader, media mythmaker, a person dedicated to the betterment of her community; she was known for acts of empathy, hurt, anger, intelligence, and fearlessness. So was her son, who was fired up to spread the same message to an even wider audience. Hughes wants to tell both life stories in the same five-hour series, and that goal becomes more important than whether things flow gracefully. Ambition can be a messy act of passion, and throughout an eye-opening and sometimes disorienting five hours, we come to share Hughes’ intricate admiration for the Shakurs and their impact across movements and generations.
The sensitive project features an incredible roster of people who sit with Hughes and crew to laugh, cry, and set the record straight about Afeni and Tupac, helping us see the many sides of both enigmatic figures. The documentary has a lingering personal nature, with Hughes shown hugging many of his subjects as everything wraps up. We hear from Tupac’s peers, his cousins, and his friends. We hear from Dr. Dre and Mike Tyson in passages about Tupac's later days. Hughes’ interview subjects are often credited by first name only, like his aunt Glo (brutally honest and admiring of her nephew and sister), or his former Death Row Records collaborator “Snoop.” At one point, Hughes gets in front of the camera to share his own supporting role in this saga, which includes co-directing the rapper's "Brenda's Got a Baby" music video with brother Albert Hughes and getting beat up by the rapper’s posse. Hughes shares this experience with an understanding heavier than any other feeling.
Meanwhile, veterans of the Black Panther Party, like Jamal and Shaba, talk about the force of nature that Afeni was. Afeni was a central part of New York City’s Black Panther 21 group, who was once accused of plotting against the government, and was the target of infiltration by undercover, manipulative police efforts like COINTELPRO. She suffered from addiction, which impacted how her son grew up; the two moved around a lot, coloring Tupac with a bit of New York, Baltimore, and Hollywood, and traumatic experiences with poverty, place brutality, and loss. But they remained close, and he expressed this in songs like “Dear Mama” (for which Hughes also co-directed the video). As Tupac ascended to rap royalty sharing his trauma and societal angst, while blurring the line between what was just an image and what was truly Tupac, Afeni was by his side.
It becomes evident in the series' more jostling narrative shifts why most filmmakers haven’t attempted to make a high-concept duo-biopic documentary like this, but Hughes blows past any warning signs. Co-writing with Lasse Jarvi, Hughes' ambition here is about big lunges, even if they are not graceful in how it goes back and forth in time between its parallel stories. Hughes is fascinated with narrative connections, overlapping images, and revealing coincidental details that can be made with these life stories (Tupac and Afeni had life-changing court cases in the same courthouse, decades apart). The story of Tupac is titanic and challenging enough; skipping back and forth between decades while giving his mother’s story almost as much screen-time can sometimes take away from the momentum of the project. This can be frustrating as the amount of information here does not do a disservice itself.
But the docuseries can also work because of the invested time, as with a moment in episode four. Hughes’ timeline takes us back to Tupac’s history as a high school drama student, the origin of someone who would become a Method Actor and use performance to express his voluminous emotions. For an assignment, Tupac embraced the lyrics of Donovan’s wistful ballad “Vincent” and talked about it for ten minutes. It's an amazing image painted by his drama teacher, Donald. Tupac related to how those lyrics recognized the pain of Vincent Van Gogh, and Hughes wants that to ensure we always have that association, with the song playing over footage of young and old Tupac. Then Hughes hits fast forward on the footage, blitzing through the images we had previously seen of a life filled with success, angst, trauma, and frustration; it’s an impactful way to show a full biographical arc, and to give Tupac’s story grace.
One of the series’ most impactful choices includes the score by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne—a cappella tracks of Tupac’s raps are laid over mournful ruminative synthesizer arrangements the three would be known for (especially Atticus Ross’ more mellow Nine Inch Nails days). Accompanied often by shots that slowly scan over the original handwritten lyrics, these moments effectively transform Tupac’s raps into monologues removed from their original packaging, his soul left bare.
Hughes’ series is best looked at as a portrait made of splattered paint and by a seasoned hand, inspired by wisdom mined from hard memories. It is meant to have its flourishes looked at close-up, but also appreciated for the larger shapes that appear when one steps back and sees the full scope. (The graffiti-like promotional art for this series is particularly on-point.) By its end, Hughes achieves some peace for this saga by giving us everything he can.
Now playing on Hulu.