There may be no hip-hop artist who’s been mythologized more than Tupac Shakur—this is an icon, after all, who had so many posthumous albums released following his 1996 death (seven, in fact) that some fans began semi-jokingly speculating, à la Elvis rumors, that he wasn’t really dead but, rather, continuing to record in secret. Dear Mama does not, alas, reveal that Tupac has been in hiding for the past 26 years. Yet director Allen Hughes’ five-part docuseries—whose first episode premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and which will air this fall on FX—does seek to shine an illuminating light on its subject, revisiting his rise to stardom through the prism of his upbringing with his mother, Afeni Shakur.
Tupac and Afeni’s bond has not gone unnoticed for the last few decades; Hughes’ series is even named after the smash single that the rapper wrote about her. Nonetheless, Dear Mama intends to be an intertwined dual biography, illustrating how Afeni’s tenure in the Black Panther movement of the 1960s and 1970s helped shape her son, who consequently grew up in an environment of proud, defiant Black activism. As its premiere makes clear, Tupac took the lessons passed down from his mother to heart, extolling from an early age a Black Power ethos that was as unfiltered as it was passionate—and, also, potentially risky, given that his outspokenness wasn’t always received with open arms and ears. At the same time, Tupac and Afeni’s relationship had its own strains, thanks in large part to the latter’s persistent addiction to crack cocaine in the 1980s.
All of that is addressed in Dear Mama’s maiden installment, although not necessarily with the lucidity one might hope for in an investigative biographical series such as this. Hughes certainly doesn’t lack for archival material. Particularly insightful is an extended clip of Tupac, as a 17-year-old Tamalpais High School student, speaking eloquently about his mom, racism, injustice and the rocky path that brought him to that Marin City, California, point in his life, which had been preceded by stops in New York City and Baltimore. There’s also footage of him as a rising performer, on stage with his initial groups, and then with Digital Underground, who gave him his first taste of the spotlight and a platform to prove that he was a singular voice to be heard. Outtakes from the studio and film sets, as well as photos from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, round out a package that foregrounds and celebrates Tupac’s personality and creativity, conveying both his fieriness, sweetness, and sense of humor.
At the same time that it brings Tupac (figuratively) to life, it also employs audio recordings of Afeni to capture her story and spirit. Born in Lumberton, North Carolina, she and her oldest sister Glo relocated to New York in 1960 with their mother but not their alcoholic, two-timing truck driver father. After hearing a speech by Bobby Seale, Afeni quickly fell in with the Black Panthers, becoming the second wife of Lumumba Shakur and rising to the position of Section Leader (which, the docuseries explains, was akin to a lieutenant). In the episode’s sharpest moment, Glo refuses to say anything negative about her deceased sister (except that “she got on my nerves”), but she speaks unflatteringly about Lumumba, all while Afeni’s Black Panther mate Jamal waxes nostalgic about the man’s charisma and intensity. That friction then extends to the two individuals’ vastly different memories of the Panthers’ conduct when it came to narcotics, with Glo derisively talking about all the drugs they consumed and Jamal stating that the organization was dedicated to stamping out those destructive substances in their community.
Two contradictory things can be true at the same time, of course, and in these passages, Dear Mama suggests that it’s interested in exploring the messiness of Tupac and Afeni’s loyal if contentious union. For the majority of its opening hour-long salvo, though, Hughes steers clear of additional complications, striving instead to lay the groundwork for his forthcoming look at Tupac’s heyday. Unfortunately, he does so via a structure that eschews straightforward chronological storytelling in favor of scattershot flip-flopping between past and present. Trying to create balance and harmony between Tupac and Afeni’s narratives makes thematic sense, but Hughes’s edits don’t create parallels between his time periods as much as they jumble together various incidents and experiences. The result is that much is mentioned, albeit often without the contextualization or cause-effect flow that might let us follow along the routes of these individuals’ lives.
Dear Mama will run five hours and yet by the close of its first installment, it’s already raced through his entire pre-fame years—i.e., the very formative phase with Afeni that seems central to this endeavor. Hughes has numerous speakers discuss Tupac and Afeni’s shared worldview, and that link is most potently felt in both a 1989 Tupac performance as well as a sequence about the origins of his debut album 2Pacalypse Now’s “Trapped,” which Hughes plays while simultaneously exhibiting a sheet of Tupac’s handwritten lyrics. In his angry and anguished rhymes about American intolerance and oppression, both historically and with regard to modern police officers, Afeni’s influence on her son comes through loud and clear. However, whether it’s the idea that Tupac was going to spearhead a new Black Panthers organization if his music career didn’t pan out, or Afeni’s role in the militant group (including as a central figure in the Panther 21, a group of 21 Black Panther members accused of planning to bomb NYC police stations and an education office in 1969, only to be acquitted after it was revealed during trial that undercover police officers were largely responsible), key details get lost in the shuffle of this all-over-the-place affair.
Admittedly, things may come into greater focus during subsequent episodes. Still, Hughes’ formal approach creates considerable cause for concern about the remainder of Dear Mama, which at outset provides a collection of fascinating glimpses of Tupac and Afeni, as well as a general notion about their common cause and perspective, but nothing coherent enough to qualify as a deeply compelling portrait of either firebrand.