Dear Mama Director Allen Hughes on the Moment Tupac Became Mythical

Allen Hughes, director of the new docuseries Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur — wasn’t sure he wanted to watch another documentary about Tupac, much less make one. 

He had seen the endless barrage of “murder mystery”-style docs about the actor-rapper-activist’s murder in Las Vegas in 1996, not even a year after record exec Suge Knight bailed him out of jail and signed him to Death Row Records. And Hughes also had history with Shakur: He and his twin brother, Albert, directed one of Shakur’s first music videos, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” and cast him in their debut feature film, 1993’s Menace II Society.

But when Shakur was fired after numerous disagreements, he and his entourage attacked and beat Allen, which led to a 15-day jail term. (Shakur was serving time on a different conviction, for sexual abuse, when Knight bailed him out; he denied the charge and was appealing.)

Shakur’s film roles ranged from a ruthless young gun in Juice to a romantic lead in Poetic Justice, but his artistic range on records was even more remarkable. He bounced from matter-of-factly detailing a cycle of poverty and abuse in “Brenda’s Got a Baby” to buoyant party anthems like “California Love” to the joyous bravado of “How Do You Want It” to the tender and vulnerable “Dear Mama,” becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time in the process. 

Shakur’s family and estate approached Hughes about directing a Tupac feature film after he made the acclaimed 2017 documentary The Defiant Ones, which traces the relationship between Dr. Dre and Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine, both of whom worked with Shakur at Death Row. After days of searching his heart, the filmmaker figured out an approach that resonated with him personally — but it wasn’t for a feature. 

Instead, he wanted to make a five-part docuseries about Tupac and his mother, Afeni Shakur, the former Black Panther who raised and shaped him into the person he became. She taught him the Black Panthers’ emphasis on self-reliance, social justice and activism, while encouraging his interest in theater, music, dance and poetry. After his death, she devoted herself to his legacy and helping young people through the arts, until her own death in 2016. 

“I thought about my past, and my mother being an activist and a single mother,” Hughes recalls. “Every artist is going to find their way to make it personal. And it just was inherently already in Tupac’s journey to make it about his mother, and what a social activist she was, and what a feminist as well.” 

The Hughes twins’ parents divorced when they were two, and their mother, Aida, moved them from Detroit to outside Los Angeles, where she put herself through school and opened her own business, a vocational center. She gave them their first video camera, and by their late teens they were directing music videos.

They were barely 21 when their low-budget Menace II Society debuted — and subsequently earned $30 million. They went on to direct films like  2001’s underrated Johnny Depp-starring Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell and the 2012 post-apocalyptic Denzel Washington film The Book of Eli.

Allen Hughes., courtesy of Michael Becker/FX

By presenting Shakur from a childhood of struggle through the tumultuous final months of his life, Dear Mama offers a fuller, more nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the complicated figure than any documentary before.

Hughes avoids re-enactments, and instead prefers to complement his interviews and archival footage with impressionistic and symbolic images — a shot of a street, a studio, a car. “Recreate the feeling, don’t recreate the images,” he explains. 

Dear Mama begins with a stunning sequence — recounting a 1993 incident in which Shakur shot two off-duty police officers he said were harassing a Black motorist — that masterfully encapsulates his endless contradictions. — M.M.

Eric Steuer: How did you arrive at the idea of focusing on Tupac and Afeni Shakur?  

Allen Hughes: Obviously, the whole struggle for human rights and social justice and knowledge. I think the biggest thing she left with him was to know your s—. To be educated and to educate yourself, not just in school, but outside of school: What are you reading to expand your mind? I think she also taught him to have a diversity in his interpersonal relationships. 

One thing that struck me about the Panthers was that I didn’t realize how diverse an organization they were. We were always raised to think that they were a “kill-whitey” movement. And nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of white people were involved in the Panther movement, a lot of gay people were involved in the Panther movement, and a lot of religions. 

I learned a lot about how they were fighting oppression, and the oppressor —whoever that might be. They were fighting for all the disenfranchised and poor, whether they were Latin, Asian, white. 

I think the other thing she left with him was this desire to have an eclectic group of people around you, to bring in different points of view into your life. That’s pretty remarkable for that time. And for someone like Tupac, and when you look at him as an artist, and as a person, I think that was his superpower as well — the diversity of thought.

Afeni Shakur in Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni & Tupac Shakur, courtesy of FX

‘Profane and Profound’

Eric Steuer: Afeni also, I think, understood the power of image, of spectacle, and of story. She understood the need to create a moment that would capture attention. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that. 

Allen Hughes: As her sister said, she was a wanderer and a wonderer. Afeni was a storyteller, and you see where Tupac got his storytelling skills. There was just an inherent understanding of mythmaking and storytelling and iconography that came with the Black Panthers. They understood image. 

Eric Steuer: I was a fan of his music, but also a fan of his charisma — his ability to capture attention by doing things that in some cases were awful and in some cases compelling. He definitely had a desire to break away from people seeing him as just one thing.

Allen Hughes: Charisma is the first thing you think of. But I’ve seen charisma before, and his was almost transcendent. He absolutely was a slave to the moment, whatever the moment, and he was supremely available to whatever emotion he was in. 

I don’t think men in America are available to their emotions at all — in particular, whatever emotion they’re in at that moment, that day. And then when you think about the Black male, it becomes that much more guarded. So I think it’s attractive to people, when you see that kind of energy, when you see that kind of vulnerability, when you see that kind of joy, that type of pain. 

It’s also dangerous. And I think that’s also attractive, right? He was charismatic — he had the thing where you go, ‘That guy’s a star.’ But I think underneath it, and I think this comes from his mother — Afeni was also a slave to the moment, available to every emotion and any emotion. And their emotions would change from hour to hour. You can’t help but get caught up in that.

There’s a speech he gives at the Indianapolis Black Expo, it comes in Part Two, that’s pretty profane and profound. I said to my girlfriend, “It doesn’t matter what he’s saying at a certain point, because there’s a supernatural energy happening.” 

Eric Steuer: You start the first episode off with the story of Tupac’s shootout with off-duty cops in Atlanta on Halloween in 1993. Why did you begin the series with that? 

Allen Hughes: I think the number-one reason to start the series off with that is I hadn’t read all this before. No one had ever expressed in the media that the night that it happened, everyone thought he was going to prison. They got back to the hotel room. Everyone was in hysterics, waiting for the cops to come and arrest everyone. And he was in this weird trance. And when he broke out of it, he wanted to play a new song he was working on, and that song was “Dear Mama.”

So that was one question: Why is he not worried about what he just did? He’s more concerned about this demo of “Dear Mama” he wants to play.
The trailer for Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni & Tupac Shakur, directed by Allen Hughes

In all my travels, in interviewing and living with this for over three years, that was the moment when Tupac became mythical. That’s the first incident where the streets really embraced him, too. He shot two white off-duty police officers down South, and got off. I think it was the perfect way to open the story. 

Also, when I start to unpack it and you learn, “Oh, that’s not a gangster who did that? That’s a Black Panther?” And the description of the way he handled it, and how calm he was, and in getting into a shooting stance on one knee. 

Snoop Dogg talks about it in the film: Tupac didn’t bring gangbanging into hip hop. But what he could bring was a military mind and an organizer mind and a disciplined, soldier mind. So you start to see that through that prism. 

What Happened Between Allen Hughes and Tupac

Eric Steuer: You had your own personal relationship with Tupac. What kinds of questions did you have to ask yourself when deciding to tell this story at all? Did you have any concerns that people would think it was a strange fit?

Allen Hughes: Yeah, I mean, I definitely had a concern. Because 

there’s haters out there, too. And they think about the violent incident between me and Tupac, where I was attacked. Because he was let go of Menace II Society, was fired from that film, and people have their perceptions of that. 

So the question I had to ask myself, which didn’t take but a millisecond, was: “What are your feelings now? Because you can’t can’t bring any negativity to this.” And it was easy for me. … One of the family members intimated to me, Hey, you and Tupac and your brother, you guys started your careers together. And I’m paraphrasing, but, like, You were his first image makers

I take a lot of pride in what he is and where he’s landed in people’s hearts. And I guess the arrogant part of me goes, “He’s never been done justice.” His journey has never been done justice, in film and television. It’s been boiled down to some cheap, like, murder mystery.

Tupac and I made peace before he passed, in our own way. So the attack] was like five minutes in a relationship that was much longer. 

Listen, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. But I think he’s almost defined in modern culture by the 11 months he was with Death Row. 

Eric Steuer: It’s crazy,, because Tupac’s Death Row era seems like it was like five years long, with everything that happened during it. I couldn’t believe how short that time actually was.

Allen Hughes: Yeah. And how hectic he was within it. Every day. And every day, damn near every day, he was in the news, you know?

Eric Steuer: You chose to tell this story as a series instead of a feature. I wonder if it’s more forgiving for you as a filmmaker to go longer because you can be broader in the details you include, instead of having to do so much fine-tuning on the edit.

Allen Hughes: If you’re doing your job, I think you need to be more fine-tuned on the edit if you’re doing five parts, because it becomes very clear when you’re just making s— up to fill time.

With this whole docuseries thing — we can bring up cases, but I won’t name names — there are cases where you go, “Oh, this could have been one episode, this could have been three,” and there’s six, right? 

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The thing about making documentaries over a three-year period is that as intense as they are, you still get to live your life in between the shooting and the interviewing and the production of it. And you get to experience culture in real time and bring culture back to the film in real time. In features, you basically get inside of a tank and go away and come up for air when you’re done. So rarely do the changing tides of the culture and of the discourse affect the film you’re making. The film you’re making rarely changes your life in an emotional, spiritual way. 

I think documentaries, when you’re doing them right, change you as a human being. Because you’re dealing with real lives and real people and having an extended, protracted time to meditate on these ideas and to think about these concepts. And in studying so intimately someone like Afeni Shakur, in her life and her journey, it changes you. So I think it’s much more rewarding as a human being — documentary filmmaking over feature filmmaking.

On a feature you go into pre-production for 10 to 16 to 18 weeks, and you’re with your team, whether it’s production design, cinematographer, location scouting, casting, and you’re locked in this thing for 10, 12, 16 weeks, and when those 16 weeks are up, you start shooting. You literally have no life when you’re shooting, and hopefully you get the weekend off and you recover. 

With documentaries, you shoot a handful of interviews here. You shoot a handful of interviews there. You see what you need, you explore, you do more excavating, you do more reading, you do more investigating. But you’re not in this intense shooting mode or production every day. … I liken it to making a record. You don’t have to be in the studio every single day to write great music. 

Making a documentary is not as intense as far as the physical production part of it. It’s intense as far as the psychological and the emotional, and the interpersonal — the connections you make with these subjects. Now you’re part of another family and you’re in constant communication with human beings that were never a part of your life before. They’re a part of your life now. 

Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, premieres April 21 on FX and Hulu.

Main image: Tupac Shakur in Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni & Tupac Shakur