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How Allen Hughes Unraveled the Myth of Tupac and Found Catharsis in ‘Dear Mama’

A conversation with director Allen Hughes about the breakout FX docuseries that focuses on the legacies of the slain rapper and his late mother

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What more can be said about Tupac Shakur over 25 years after his death considering the frequent and thorough explorations of his place in the zeitgeist? That’s one question director Allen Hughes had to answer ahead of the five-part FX docuseries Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, but Hughes had a bigger obstacle to clear before even agreeing to do the project.

Thirty years have passed since Hughes and his twin brother, Albert, broke out at age 21 with their bleak feature-length debut, Menace ll Society. It’s also been 30 years since Shakur infamously assaulted Hughes after his firing during the film’s preproduction phase, the culmination of simmering acrimony between onetime friends. Hughes knew he’d have to address this (which he does in the documentary), and after much deliberation, he decided that taking on the project was the right decision. After all, he and his brother directed Shakur’s first three videos as a solo artist (“Trapped,” “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” and “If My Homie Calls”), which gave them the cachet to direct Menace ll Society before they could legally drink.

Dear Mama charts the journeys of Shakur and his mother, the activist Afeni Shakur. In April 1969, she was among the 21 members of the Black Panther Party who were accused of plotting to bomb various buildings and kill police officers in New York City. After defending herself during the trial, she was acquitted in May 1971, one month before her son was born. Shakur’s mother, who died in May 2016, is a dominant presence in his music, most famously in the song from which Dear Mama draws its title. And although Shakur was explicit about how his mother was a source of his anger as well as his biggest inspiration, Hughes wanted to emphasize how that dynamic impacted his actions. “What made Tupac so great was everything she gave him: good, bad, and ugly,” Hughes, 51, tells me.

With its dual subjects and nonchronological timeline, Dear Mama is an ambitious undertaking that attempts to provide context rather than any definitive conclusions by examining what Shakur’s mother endured, how it impacted their relationship, and the lasting effect it had on his life. “I knew I would discover him through her,” Hughes, whose last project was the acclaimed 2017 docuseries The Defiant Ones, says. “And although he’s the main star, she’s the revelation.” Hughes spoke to The Ringer about the misconceptions regarding Tupac, learning about Afeni Shakur through others, and the catharsis of directing Dear Mama without making it about himself—except for when he had to.

Do you feel like the idea of who Tupac was has gotten distorted through the years?

I think it’s gotten distorted and been reduced down to the last 11 months of his life. That’s the image that most people who aren’t true fans have: the Death Row Tupac. I did this mostly because I was searching for the purpose and the meaning in his journey. When you travel the world and you see those murals in South America, Asia, or Africa, you absolutely know what they stand for. But then I discovered something in just finishing this and doing press: It was lost on me that he has become a global symbol of rebellion. I was over here trying to find the melody in this narrative and make sure that people know what his mother stood for and what he originally stood for. Meanwhile, that’s what he stands for. That’s pretty fuckin’ good.

I think he’s been reduced to the Death Row era because that’s what’s received the most attention. You and Albert directed three of his earliest solo videos. What was your initial impression of him, and when did you see that start to change?

I met him at [a San Francisco restaurant] with Digital Underground. We were there for our first paying job. I remember being blown away by this kid at the end of the table. He was so funny and—here’s the overused word with him—so charismatic. He was snappin’ on everybody, and I was just taken with him. At one moment when it was just the two of us, he told me that he saw our short films, he’d just signed a record deal, and he wanted us to direct his music videos. Sometimes I forget how community-oriented he was. If he saw Black kids that were talented, he wanted to align himself with them or help them. I also remember that at his apartment at the time, he was always fostering—not legally—boys, taking care of them. So what stood out to me at the time was his heart and his humor.

We became fast friends in this slightly less-than-a-year span that we were all working together, and we had the script for Menace in that time. We used to pick him up at Burbank Airport every time he came to town, and we took him to see Juice on the Paramount lot before it came out. After he saw the movie is when I saw him change.

Which brings us to the incident. As I understand it, the two of you disagreed about how the character of Sharif was written and him being disruptive during rehearsals. You were all very young at the time. How much of the initial disagreement and what it spiraled into was just a combination of youth and ego?

It was probably all the latter [laughs]. Youth and ego were no. 1, but I will say one thing in my defense and one thing in Tupac’s defense. I had to find a way to simplify what happened, because it actually wasn’t over the argument. It was because during rehearsals, he was just impossible. We could never get work done. He was just so volatile. And by the time we got him to rehearsals on Menace, me, him, and my brother were already fractured due to what you described. When we did the “If My Homie Calls” video, and you can even see it in the archival footage in the documentary, you can look at me and my brother’s faces and see that we’re just done. The relationship before Menace was fracturing, and I’ve never said this before, but it was getting borderline physically volatile. We had a few skirmishes between the three of us. We weren’t scrapping, but it was getting to that. We were calling each other out.

One happened at Union Station when we were shooting “If My Homie Calls.” We almost got into a one-on-one there. It was all building up. The way to simplify it was to say that the argument was over the character, because he did have that gripe. And to his credit, he was right about that. But the problem was that he just refused to fit into the rehearsals. I tried and I tried and I tried, but that was what happened.

The two of you never got to resolve the matter, but he did apologize before he was killed. Did you harbor resentment toward him, and what did it take for you to get past that?

The most famous apology came with the Quincy Jones apology in Vibe magazine, and I remember appreciating that in real time. But I saw a lot of footage of him really expressing his remorse during that interview with Tabitha Soren. I saw him not only doubling down on it, but she asked him if he would ever work with us, and he was like, “Yeah, they’re great filmmakers—if they would ever consider it.” It was really moving me, and I only heard this maybe 10 months ago. He was saying really beautiful things about me and my brother that I never knew existed. So my greatest regret is not being big enough to go see him in prison. Because that would’ve only been a year after the incident, so clearly I was pissed. I was shook when he passed, but it wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t surprising, but it was shocking. It took a while after his passing, probably a few years, but I really started to appreciate him as an artist around ’97, ’98, ’99. I didn’t go back into unlocking anything until The Defiant Ones. And then it wasn’t until Dear Mama that I absolutely had compassion for him.

You were understandably reluctant to sign on and direct because you knew you would have to address this. In the end, was it therapeutic for you?

It didn’t feel like it in the moment, I’ll tell you that much [laughs]. Like six months or a year ago, and due to other reasons associated with these things, it just felt really painful and tedious. It didn’t feel like it was working. Although creatively, we never had a problem because I was trying to get it to feel right. But now, yeah, this was completely cathartic. Even though this story is seen through his mother, and I want to celebrate that woman and any woman people tried to erase from history most of all, especially a Black woman, the thing I’m most proud of now is helping to pave the path for understanding, healing, and reconciliation—particularly for Black men and Black boys. Snoop has helped with that as well. One thing Tupac showed us, and he was a little too extreme with it, is that we should probably be a little more in touch with our emotions as they connect to our thoughts and spirits.

O.J.: Made in America is about how the world changed through the lens of O.J. Simpson. Was there a broader story you wanted to tell through Tupac’s and Afeni’s lenses?

Yeah, it’s really simple: I wanted to talk about mental health, especially in the Black community. I wanted to focus on Black trauma. And I had to go back to therapy when I started this because I was very angry about what was happening in our culture with thinking we had advanced even though we absolutely haven’t. The O.J. thing is good because you’re talking about race. You’re always going to default to America’s original sin because we never deal with it. But I was also fascinated by … magical niggas [laughs]. I was working on the script for the Marvin Gaye project at the time, and I was like, “Damn, despite everything, look how magical motherfuckers were.”

There’s something in the center of this, and I got mad at someone about this because they were asking if we were saying Tupac was the Black messiah. And I said, “Listen, asshole, that’s you projecting—and let’s take it back to the film. That’s what J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI called civil rights leaders: eliminating any potential Black messiahs.” Tupac lacked the tools to bring his potential as a civil rights leader together because of what was decimated around him while he was growing up. The real heartbreaking thing is when you look at Tupac and how powerful his mother was, you see she was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. When you ask why Tupac wasn’t able to pull it all together, well, look at what happened to his people. What the FBI did worked.

How did you balance being fair to Tupac and Afeni while also being honest about their flaws and complexities?

I started with Glo, Afeni’s sister. And I’m sure you can pick up pretty quickly that she’s a truth speaker, but with love, humor, and a touch of mysticism. It’s all yin and yang shit, so in order to move a crowd, I don’t believe it can be all roses or all thorns. It’s got to be a complex journey, because as bold as some of the strokes are in this film, I don’t think you can walk away and definitively say, “Allen’s telling me to think this.” You can project whatever you want onto him like no other 20th-century figure.

Tupac had the spotlight on him at a young age after having to deal with circumstances many children don’t have to face. Do you think he was more emotional and nakedly honest about things because of his upbringing?

One hundred percent. But if you look at that family, and after learning about Afeni and meeting Glo, Jamala [Lesane, Tupac’s cousin], Billy [Garland, Tupac’s father], and the entire family, they’re just a really frank, funny family. But there’s a lot of pain there as well. They always talk about [Tupac and Afeni] as twins, but Afeni was really available to her emotions at any given hour. He learned that from her, and he was hardwired like that in prison. People wonder why we still talk about him, and it’s wrapped up in that right there.

It wasn’t an epiphany for me, but I was recently thinking about my favorite Tupac song, “So Many Tears.” It’s from the same album that “Dear Mama” was on. And let’s not even talk about “Hit ’Em Up,” “Me and My Girlfriend,” “Blasphemy,” or “Hail Mary”—most of which are on The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. But if you look at All Eyez on Me, the thing that always moved me about him was how, at that point, you’d never heard one-take performances of pure passion like that. A lot of that stuff was messy, but it was perfect.

I’ve found people tend to either love or hate Tupac; there’s little in-between. He’d say something brilliant, then say something incredibly stupid in the next breath. Looking back, how much do you think that was just the youth and immaturity we spoke about before?

That’s all that was. And you know what? For better or worse, Tupac was one of the OG trolls, too. He knew how to hit someone hard and say something that would capture the moment. And he would call people out by name, too. I had to take some of that out of the movie. There was a whole run he did on Black celebrities that I’m sure you’re familiar with, but it was shocking whom he called out.

How deeply do you think he struggled with material success and the socialist ideology he was raised with?

I think that was haunting the shit out of him. I think coming up with that socialist mentality—to give to others, to sacrifice, and to not submit to capitalism—was killing him. Because keep in mind, there were two things happening at the same time he signed his record deal. He was already three years too late signing the deal because nobody was thinking about that Black Power shit anymore; that was ’88. And by ’91, it was the Niggaz4Life album. Throwing prostitutes out of the car, shooting the whole neighborhood up—that’s what was selling: the excess of hip-hop. He was riddled with contradictions, so I think he loved and hated it. When you look back, whether it’s Prince, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, I don’t give a fuck. At a certain point, you’re going to give in to your excess because it’s part of your progression as an artist and human being. When you listen to All Eyez on Me, you’re like, “OK, this is void of ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby,’ ‘Keep Ya Head Up,’ and ‘Dear Mama.’” He was moving through that season, and I think it haunted him, which is why he wouldn’t stop and sit down.

I got the sense that you wanted to show how their experiences in prison affected their lives. Then there’s the fact that their trials took place in the same courthouse. But Afeni being targeted by the government isn’t the same as Tupac being on trial for sexual assault, no matter what anyone believes his level of involvement was. Did you have any reservations about juxtaposing their trials considering the differences in what they were on trial for?

I never had reservations about that because only an idiot would think I was trying to compare the actual charges. Because, to your point, sexual assault … we don’t play with that. No one knows what happened in that room, but something happened in that room, and he took accountability for it. In no way could you compare that in nature to the charges Afeni was facing. At all. But when you look at the human journey and their arcs as individuals, you can almost lay [one story over the other] with how old they were and when they faced it. Very different charges, but I believe that as storytellers, it’s our job to challenge the audience to think—just like with the question you asked. We’re painting a portrait of two human beings and the thematic parallels: emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Sometimes there are righteous things going on, and sometimes it ain’t so righteous, but the parallels still exist.

In Tupac’s mind, the Halloween 1993 shooting was about community and protecting Black people. He was raised by people who fought back against the police; the revolutionaries don’t scare. Opening the documentary with that story was a way to introduce “Dear Mama” and his relationship with Afeni, but did you also want to shed light on his system of beliefs?

Yeah, and that was another revelation. And by the way, none of us knew that after he shot those cops, he was focused on playing that demo of “Dear Mama” for the first time. I never heard that anywhere. But again, that’s the top-line ticket. When you get deeper into it and see how I unpack it as the series progresses, he was also a Method actor who was in Haitian Jack mode. There are those contradictions again. He had both inside of him at the same time. So if he wasn’t hangin’ tough with Haitian Jack for the role he was playing in Above the Rim, would he have gotten out of that car and shot at those cops? Who knows.

A lot of people joke that after Juice and Above the Rim, Tupac became those characters for the remainder of his life. But the documentary highlights the impact of Tupac’s encounter with the Oakland police in October 1991, during which Tupac said the officers put him in a choke hold, on the last five years he was alive. Did you point that out to give more context to his behavior?

I think it was critical to put that in there, and I knew about it at the time. I won’t say we discussed it, but it came up because he was suing them. I remember when he shaved his head because of alopecia. We were staying in West Hollywood the night before we were getting ready to shoot his first music video, and there was a knock at my door around 11 p.m. I open the door and someone rushes in, laughing, and tackles me onto the bed, just giggling. I pushed that person off of me, and it was Tupac, who had shaved his head for the first time. It didn’t look right at first, and he was insecure about it. I knew we had to put that in there because, and this is one of the things that breaks my heart, it’s one of those haunting, cyclical things. Even right down to the Trayvon Martin image with the hoodie when he’s talking about how he couldn’t breathe. You could say a lot of things about his childhood, but that thing alone will set anybody on another path.

I was watching Gridlock’d recently. His performance highlighted his capacity for humor, but he was also able to convey the tragedy of addiction. What do you think his greatest strength as an actor was?

He never got to fully arrive there, but I think his greatest strength was that thing that’s undefinable and unquantifiable: the “it” factor. It’s the same thing Denzel [Washington] has, and they actually remind me a lot of one another after working closely with Denzel on The Book of Eli. They’re very similar characters, not emotionally as much as that thing. They can walk into a room, and I don’t care who else is there, it’s a wrap. That can’t be taught; it can only be honed. It’s emotional intelligence that’s off the charts, but it’s also social genius that’s off the charts. I remember telling Denzel that I’ve been around bona fide rock star pimps. There is no one more charismatic than the pimp of the pimps, and I’ve been around about three of them. I told Denzel that he’s right up there with them—and I think Tupac was too. Denzel is wiser in how he moves and studies a room; he’s not a hostage to his emotions like Tupac was. But as far as that thing that can move a room, I don’t think anyone could fuck with Tupac, because there’s also that element of danger that Denzel’s just too smart to have.

As a fellow Gen Xer, how much generational pride is there in being able to tell this story, considering how hip-hop was viewed at the time and what it’s become in the years since?

I’m honored and humbled to even be operating in a caviar space. I worked really hard to ensure that with this film and The Defiant Ones, we had the resources, the right partner in terms of network or streamer, and the right marketing and positioning. Because you’re talking about being part of the public record and history now. Back when Menace came out, as blessed as we were that it worked out and as highly celebrated as it was, it was still kicked to the side by the mainstream codifiers. I take a tremendous amount of pride in coming back to Tupac and where we started our journey. Without the “Brenda’s Got a Baby” video, my brother and I wouldn’t have gone on to do Menace.

We were 19, and New Line Cinema tried to stop the deal at the 11th hour because they weren’t convinced we could do narrative. Our agent was smart enough to send them the “Brenda’s Got a Baby” video, and that’s when [New Line Cinema founder] Bob Shaye was like, “Oh shit.” That changed our lives. We were also some of Tupac’s first image makers as a solo artist. The videos that have come out since he died always recycle the “Brenda’s Got a Baby” footage. That tells you a lot. And at the time, it wasn’t lost on me at all that this dude was special. So I take a tremendous amount of pride in how far hip-hop has come, what Tupac became, and what we’ve all become. But I also think—just like the fight for social justice, women’s rights, and human rights—that we have to be very vigilant about maintaining these stories at places that put them where they reach global audiences so they’re never treated like redheaded stepchildren again.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.