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Black Panther member Afeni Shakur at the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in September 1970. David Fenton/Getty Images

‘Dear Mama’ is Tupac and Afeni Shakur’s beautiful, tragic opus

The FX docuseries details the tell true story behind the mother and son

Afeni Shakur and her son, Tupac Shakur, lived nearly 35,000 days combined — and very few of those days seemed to have brought either one of them real peace. In Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, FX’s sprawling new five-part docuseries directed by Allen Hughes, we get a look at the trials and triumphs of the mother-son duo who fought — against racist systems, cops, their own demons, and rivals — for the majority of their lives.

“I think my mother knew that freedom wouldn’t come in her lifetime,” Shakur says in the series, which includes photos and archival footage,”just like I know that it won’t come in mine.”

The difficulty of telling Tupac and Afeni Shakur’s story wasn’t lost on Hughes. Shakur, a quarter century after his murder, is a folk hero whose life has been immortalized on film for years. How could Hughes tell a story many believed they already knew everything about?

“It was really challenging and difficult to figure out a way to tell [their stories] in a different, dynamic way. I don’t feel like Afeni has been chronicled,” Hughes said. “So, that part I knew would be a revelation, and that would be the access point and the prism to see the whole journey through. I felt that the perception was that there were too many Tupac things out. So I had to fight that perception, and seeing through Afeni’s journey was the way to do that.”

Dear Mama is a comprehensive, uncomfortable, frustrating, emotional and necessary examination of the legacies of both Tupac and Afeni Shakur. In part, that’s because it’s more than a standard birth-to-death retelling of their story. They were notable figures in every significant discourse regarding the treatment of Black people in America since the Civil Rights Movement — the Black Panther Party, women’s liberation, the war on drugs and poverty and the rise of hip-hop. 

“Social, cultural and political is everything. So if you’re not contextualizing that way, then you’re not doing your job,” said Hughes. “So you could see that in Afeni’s journey, you could see that in Tupac. Where was she in the timeline of just Black people in America … and then to that end, Tupac, you have to ask those same questions. People take [the story] into their heart in a more fuller way when you take them on that journey, that colorful journey.

Afeni and Tupac Shakur were from two different generations of Black freedom fighters — and many times their own worst enemies. But mother and son inherited the same war. And going to war, on however many fronts, was the family business. Surviving was never the point of the mission. Changing the world as much as they could was the goal.

Hughes and his brother, Albert, are figures in Shakur’s narrative. The two directed many of his earliest videos, including “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” They also made the difficult choice to remove Shakur from their 1993 film, Menace II Society. This decision led to Hughes getting jumped that same year by Shakur and members of his entourage. Shakur not only boasted about the event on Yo! MTV Raps, but also served jail time for it. It’s taken Hughes almost a lifetime to come to peace with the moment and how it not only changed his life and career, but also Shakur’s. All of which is discussed in the series.

It is unfair to reduce both Shakur and Hughes to their darkest moment together, though. Back then, Hughes didn’t focus on the altercation. He had too much else going on. Menace II Society was headed to the Cannes Film Festival. The soundtrack was receiving rave reviews. Over time, the altercation became a thing of the past. Shakur, a simultaneous supernova and moving tragedy, was killed in 1996. In 2013, Hughes went on Sway in the Morning and gave a blow-by-blow account of the altercation. But even that accounting, he noted, lacked context. It wasn’t until his work on the 2017 documentary, The Defiant Ones, when he really began to unlock his true emotions. Dear Mama helped him sort through them even more.

“The real healing and cathartic experience didn’t happen till I made this. And it wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t like a year ago. It was just the last few weeks,” he said. “I hope there’s more of these. I hope there’s more people telling stories they were in and maybe it seems odd. As long as you open your heart up and you’re willing to take the bullets, too, which I am. Then something magical can potentially happen about uncovering what wasn’t uncovered initially.”

That magic in Dear Mama begins with a bang. The first episode opens with the backstory of Shakur’s introspective hit record, “Dear Mama.” Though it was released in 1995, the earliest version of the song was recorded in 1994 — the same year Shakur’s star power ballooned following the success of movies like Juice and Poetic Justice, which paired him with Janet Jackson. “Keep Ya Head Up” and “I Get Around,” both singles from Pac’s 1993 album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., added to his growing résumé, which also included the titles activist and revolutionary. His mother’s involvement in the Black Panther Party was the foundation of Shakur’s politics and his commitment to the Black community. Which is why, when he saw two white men harassing a Black motorist late one night in Atlanta, he intervened.

It was Halloween 1993 and Shakur initially attempted to defuse the situation. But when one of the white men hit the Black motorist and brandished a gun, things escalated. After grabbing his own gun, Shakur got down on one knee, like a marksman, and shot both men. He’d later learn they were off-duty police officers.

Later that night, as law enforcement surrounded the hotel where he and his entourage were staying, Shakur attempted to quell a panicked room by playing a song he’d just recorded. That song was “Dear Mama.”

The series smartly juxtaposes the peaks and valleys of mother and son’s lives with the complexities of America. With the gift of hindsight a quarter century after Shakur’s death and nearly seven years after Afeni’s, it can be said America hurt Afeni. Afeni hurt Tupac. Society tried to suffocate Tupac. And in turn, Shakur’s energy often missed its mark.

“Part of [Allen] wanting to really do this piece was about healing, was about honesty, was about all of us looking at what happened,” Leila Steinberg, Shakur’s first manager, told SiriusXM’s The Last Mile Radio last month. “I’m just saying this to say he’s done an incredible piece. I’m in my 60s now. We really blew it. We made a lot of mistakes. Tupac was not always right. Matter of fact, he was so passionate and so emotional and so often not emotionally literate, not able to control his emotions. So he let his anger speak first and then later he would apologize or acknowledge things. So if we’re gonna heal, we have to be honest.”

Tupac and Afeni Shakur’s stories can be told individually and they have been. Yet, as Dear Mama reveals, its more effective to weave them together. In 1971, Afeni Shakur successfully defended herself in the Panther 21 trial, in which 21 members of the Black Panther Party were charged with conspiring to attack numerous targets around New York City. A month later, Shakur was born. Dear Mama also shares Shakur’s last words after being shot in Las Vegas (he allegedly told a cop, “F— you”), the sexism Afeni Shakur faced inside the Black Panther Party, her eventual crack addiction and the pain and fracture it caused on her and her son.

Though he only lived 25 years, Shakur’s life felt longer. He never allowed himself to slow down. He wanted to change the trajectory of his life by controlling the only thing he believed he could: the present. Part of that came from how he grew up with his mother, who often left him while she advocated for Black liberation. Later, he continued to live in the moment as her addiction crippled her and their relationship. Ultimately, Shakur saw the world like his mother saw it: as an ugly canvas that could only be painted with brushes of revolution and resistance.

Perhaps what Dear Mama does best is show how much their relationship bent and stretched — but never broke. You come to understand why Shakur was angry at society over the treatment of his mother and so many other “fallen soldiers.”

“What about all these other soldiers sitting in jail? Where they kids at? Don’t none of you motherf—ers give a f— about them!” Shakur raged at the 1993 Black Expo in Indiana. “Little Latasha [Harlins] got a bullet in her motherf—ing back and ain’t ‘nar one of you do a motherf—ing thing!”

You come to understand why, in moments of stress, he once shot up a Mercedes-Benz (no one was in it). You’ll ask yourself why he could defend the Black man getting harassed by cops — but didn’t do more to defend Ayanna Jackson the night of her sexual assault (a regret that would follow Shakur the rest of his life). You also understand why Shakur’s delusions became his reality — like why he believed his former friend The Notorious B.I.G. set him up in the 1994 Quad Studios shooting, or why he felt the need to attack Southside Crip Orlando Anderson shortly after the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight in September 1996, a move that many speculate led directly to his demise. He was never as mad at his mother as much as he was angry at the world. In Dear Mama you learn how far off course Afeni Shakur’s life went until her son helped get her back on track. And you understand how much they needed each other as Shakur’s life became more chaotic as his time in the public light grew.

The pain in Afeni Shakur’s voice when she talks about just how much she wanted to protect her son is palpable. You feel the haziness that still comes with discussing Shakur’s decision to join Death Row Records — and why, even to this day, many are angry at those who didn’t do enough to protect Shakur from himself. And there’s a familiar sense of loyalty when Shakur speaks about his mother, despite their trials.

In many ways, all they had was each another. During Shakur’s dark nights in a maximum security penitentiary for sexual assault, the stories of his mother and her fight provided light in the darkest chapter of his life. The fight is a critical through line for Dear Mama. But at its core, the series is about a mother trying to figure out how to be the best mother she can be — and a son trying to figure out how to be the best son. So when his mother checked out of rehab, Shakur hired her as his publicist — experience be damned. And when Shakur, with a lung removed and his finger shot off, fought for his life in a Las Vegas hospital, his mother ultimately decided to let her son discover if heaven indeed had a ghetto.

“The only other person I can compare it to is when you read a biography on Richard Pryor and you go, ‘Wow, one week in this dude’s life was like a year,’ ” said Hughes. “Literally, that’s how they led their lives. So when people feel like his story’s been told, I’m sure you can for the next hundred years, tell many Tupac stories and they’ll all be fresh.”

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.