‘To Love Tupac Was to Fight With Tupac’: Why Allen Hughes Needed to Make ‘Dear Mama’
With his new five-part Tupac docuseries, the 'Menace II Society' filmmaker weighs in on making the definitive look at a legend — and separating the man from the myth
WHEN TUPAC SHAKUR’S estate approached Allen Hughes to make a documentary about the iconic rapper, Hughes said thanks, but no. Sure, the Defiant Ones filmmaker and his brother, Albert, had co-directed Shakur’s first music videos; Hughes had also been violently attacked by Shakur and his entourage in the early Nineties. “I didn’t want to go back there,” he says. But the Shakur family said something that changed his mind: “To know Tupac, to love Tupac, was to fight with Tupac.” So Hughes decided to reveal the Tupac he’d known: a poet, a political firebrand, and the son of a Black Panther, Afeni Shakur, who herself contained multitudes. The resulting five-part docuseries, Dear Mama, begins airing on FX on April 21, and delves into the lives of both the hip-hop icon and his equally outspoken, socially conscious mother. “We were his first image-makers and his first storyteller collaborators,” Hughes says. “It was time to bring it back home.”
How did you meet Tupac?
When my brother and I first went up for our first music video, it was for a Digital Underground spinoff group. I don’t know if you remember Raw Fusion; it was DJ Fuze — the white DJ — and Money-B. And we had to meet with the whole Digital Underground crew in San Francisco, at a Waffle House. And the kid at the end of the table… I was just taken with. Captivated. All humor, all colorful humor. That was Tupac. We waited for him to start shooting the next day because we used to try to do opening scenes in music videos, and we wanted to put him right in the middle of that, and he was late. It’s funny, because you had Shock G, all those big personalities in Digital who were there. But Tupac was the one that really stood out, even before he was a star.
I went to the bathroom and he came to the bathroom at the same time, and he says, “I’m going to get you guys to do my first music videos.” Because he had seen our short films, the same thing that got us that Raw Fusion music video. I didn’t believe him. But a month later, Tom Whalley from Interscope called me looking for “like, the Hughes twins?” [Laughs.] And Tupac says, “Can you come into the office?” You could tell Whalley was like, “What is this shit?” And so, first working with him, it was just a ball of passion and equal energy and ambition there. That’s when we made “Trapped” and Brenda’s Got a Baby.”
You were close with Tupac early on in his career. What was it like to see him break out and become a star?
My brother and I used to pick him up from the airport in Burbank. One day, we picked him up and went straight to the Paramount lot to watch Juice. It was a preliminary screening, just for him to see it for the first time. And when we walked out of that theater, that’s when things started to change. The tattoos started accumulating. The attitude changed. I saw him go, “Oh, that’s it. From A to Z, that’s it.” I’m just as big a fan of mythmaking and iconography as he was, and I saw him see the blueprint. Even before he went to prison, it just became performance art. His greatest role was the role he inhabited, the Thug Life thing right down to the end.
How do you separate the myth of Tupac from the human being? What does everybody get wrong about him?
The biggest misconception about Tupac is that when you look at that image, it seems like he’s a rebel without a cause, because he was 25. And there very much was a cause there. Six months before he stepped onto a stage, he was living in abject poverty, not knowing where his next meal would come from. Any great artist is completely delusional, and with those delusions comes the slippery slope of mythmaking versus reality. But there’s all these things [in the series] on human rights, women’s rights. He’s a social-justice warrior, where all three words have equal weight.
“The biggest misconception about Tupac is that he’s a rebel without a cause. There’s very much a cause. He’s a social-justice warrior, where all three words have equal weight.”
How did working on this series change your own perspective on him?
It’s hitting me on multitudes of levels — interpersonal, spiritual, emotional, psychological. It’s been a very emotional . . . I had to get back in therapy [because of] this country and the race thing, and Afeni and Tupac have just been triggering it. I’ve been relearning how to take that anger and make it something positive. This helped me do that.
It was Afeni’s sister, Gloria — “Aunt Glo” — who made me realize the sense of full circle-ness of it. We were his first image-makers and his first storyteller collaborators, and it was time just to bring it back home. That resonated with me. And to have the blessing of Afeni’s only sister…I got to move my ego aside, move my personal shit aside.
The number one thing that became crystal clear to me, that bothered me about Tupac’s image, is that you can be in France, you can be in Africa, you can be in Germany or Southeast Asia, wherever — you’ll see a mural of Tupac. But there’s a confusion about what that image of him represents. I went into this saying, “You know what? I want to make sure it represents what he actually stood for, what his mother stood for originally.” He lost his way a little bit, but he was young. He would’ve found his way back. That was part of his progression of becoming a man. But you know… He didn’t [even] make the 27 club. Imagine that.
At what point did you realize that you were going to start the series off with that story about him shooting two off-duty cops in Atlanta?
That idea came late, actually. People know what happened — it was in the news — but as a story, told from someone who was in the car with him, there were things about that had never been told before, that I never knew. I found myself going, “Wait a minute, he knelt down like a marksman? And then he played the song he played, which is the demo for ‘Dear Mama?’ Oh, that’s got to go up front…”
It’s the paradox right there.
It’s the poet and the “Thug Life” guy, in one story. When he shot those two cops in ATL, few people know that he was living the life of Haitian Jack for Above the Rim. He was inhabiting that mindset. He was a Method actor, really, but not by choice. That’s just how he was wired.
How much of Afeni’s story did you know at the outset of this project?
The first thing I said to the family [was]: “The only way I’ll do this is if it’s multiple parts, and it’s just as much about Afeni as it is about Tupac.” I knew she’d been a Panther, she’d fought addiction, but that’s it. She was a revelation to me. I always saw it like The Godfather: Part II, the sins of the father weighing on the son. I said, “If I could do that in a documentary form, in an innovative way . . . ” How do we keep emotionally innovating this medium as well as with Tupac and Afeni? They’re so similar.
I don’t think I’ve ever said this before publicly, but: I didn’t know Tupac was also making a documentary on his life about him and his mother with a friend of his, a filmmaker that was doing music videos at the time. This was in the last year of his life.
Yeah. I didn’t know that when I started this process, to be honest. So I got to pick up stuff that he himself shot for a movie on himself and his mother. This was all during the last year of his life. And what’s so tragic, what tears me up, is that you watch this footage and you can see he’s getting back to the social-justice theme. You can see that he’s getting back to the stuff that his mom taught him. So, yeah. Some of that footage is in the series.
There was an interview you did a few years back where someone asked you about Tupac and you talked about this thing he kept bringing up: “Well, I got to do this music as hard as possible so then I can bring all these people that I’ve brought over to where they need to go. I’m bringing everybody in — and then I’m going to blow some minds. This is where I tell people this is what we need to do. This is where we need to be taking things.” And he just never got that chance.
I always say Tupac signed his record deal three years too late. It’s ’91. It’s the epicenter of gangster rap. And it ain’t just N.W.A. It’s Compton’s Most Wanted, it’s DJ Quik, it’s this one, it’s that one. When you see him in Marin in Part One, with the “Panther Power, Panther Power” — that’s 1988. They also say the thing about great artists is they’re always out of the step with their times, and then there’s that blessing that happened with great artists where they’re ahead.
There’s a scene in one of the later episodes where you see Tupac and Snoop talking backstage at the MTV Music Awards — and then we cut to Snoop now, a 50-year-old Snoop, and he’s saying, like, “Man, if he’d just made it to 30, he would have dealt with shit better.” Tupac, Snoop, and me, we were all around the same age, and I can testify to what he’s saying. If Tupac had made it to 30, he would have people who could have helped him out and he’d still be making great art. I mean, look, things like mental health, Black trauma — no one talked about that in the Nineties. And all those themes we deal with in episodes two, three, four and five big time. But that kept hurting my heart. To see Snoop be able to look back on those days and reflect, to speak insight now about what they were going through then? It’s a goosebump moment.
Is there something about making documentaries that scratches a specific creative itch for you?
Someone once told me, “Allen, when you do a documentary and it’s the right one, it changes you as a human being.” Scripted films certainly don’t — I don’t give a fuck how deep it is, it doesn’t change your soul. You’re not dealing with real people. There was always a perception that documentaries were simply some strange offshoot of journalism. But they can also be cinematic, entertaining, deeply personal. I still believe this medium of documentaries can achieve something that feature films could never achieve, as far as really affecting people emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. In the right hands, given all the tools of cinema, I think there’s still innovation to be done here.