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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Dear Mama’ on FX, A Powerfully-Told Docuseries About The Life and Legacy of Tupac Shakur

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Dear Mama

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In Dear Mama (FX; also streaming on Hulu), the new five-part docuseries from writer, director, and exec producer Allen Hughes (The Defiant Ones, Menace II Society), the mother-son bond between Afeni and Tupac Shakur is explored as a saga that spans the decades. Tupac, the visionary rapper and actor who was only 25 when he was murdered in 1996, appears here in rare and unreleased audio and video. Afeni Shakur is interviewed extensively, and Dear Mama also features contributions from family, friends, collaborators, as well as notables of hip hop including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem.  


Opening Shot: Los Angeles, 1991. Speaking on a local talk show about the challenges he faced growing up, Tupac Shakur says all of it made him who is today. “I would say it was a test on my faith. Job, in the Bible, God did all of this crazy stuff to him, just to make sure his faith was straight.” 

The Gist: Snoop Dogg’s assessment of Tupac Shakur’s character and legacy points specifically backward in time, to the rapper’s formative years with Afeni Shakur, his mother, and a former leader in the Black Panther Party. “They say a man ain’t a man until he’s 27. You still a baby at 25. But he was just, like, a special motherfucker. And this spirit has only grown through his mother – she was great before he even got here.” Time’s arrow often points both ways in Dear Mama, as writer and director Allen Hughes seeks to connect Afeni’s activist fervor and individualism to the demeanor and public voice her son Tupac had developed by the time he was killed in a still-unsolved 1996 shooting. Despite the adversity they faced, Afeni says in an interview for Dear Mama, and despite a portion of it stemming from her own struggle with addiction, it was her duty to help her son understand his reality. That he was a Black man living in America in the 1980s.  

There are other testimonials here besides Snoop, from Dr. Dre, Eminem, Ray Luv, and Mike Tyson, the world champion boxer who says that whenever he meets kids in other parts of the world, all they want to know about is what it was like to be near Tupac. But Hughes largely eschews the traditional documentary format. Put more simply, he blows it up. Contemporary interviews blend into archival footage sourced from all over – including interviews with Tupac as a high school student as well as a 1995 deposition he gave while in custody in New York State – and commentary from friends and colleagues of both Shakurs that constructs a dramatic arc with foundations in four different decades. The history of Afeni Shakur’s journey toward liberation and empowerment as a Black Panther is repeated in Tupac Shakur’s strident lyricism and natural gifts of charisma. As much as members of the Black Panthers looked to Afeni for leadership, those around Tupac as his music career emerged felt drawn to his presence. “I saw an energy,” says music executive Atron Gregory. Deals with Interscope were signed, and acting projects began to appear. (Dear Mama includes a clip of Tupac’s fiery audition tape for Juice.) But tragedy was waiting in the wings.

Dear Mama show poster
Photo: FX

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? It’s kind of crazy that it took until 2023 for us to get the definitive Tupac Shakur documentary, complete with the cooperation of his family, friends, and professional peers. But now that Allen Hughes’ docuseries is here, it’s part of a reckoning with an era of hip-hop that certainly deserves a say in how its story is told. And to that end, it’s been announced that Hughes will also be at the helm for an upcoming Snoop Dogg biopic.

Our Take: Often, the elliptical, nonlinear storytelling in Dear Mama is powerful enough to elevate it completely out of the documentary form. Its interview subjects are shot at night, in dark rooms, or beside a roaring fire; it punctuates their commentary with the use of stock footage and other resources that merge together and flirts with dramatic reenactment; and with the benefit of writer-director Allen Hughes’ experience as a filmmaker, and the hip hop soundtrack provided by its central figure, entire stretches of Dear Mama feel more like a biopic than a docuseries. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course. Hughes’ emphatic style choices inform the story in ways a stuffier, more traditional doc certainly wouldn’t. It keeps as its focus the energy and vitality that resonated in Tupac Shakur’s music, and which is almost touchable here, in both youthful interviews and in how a song like “Dear Mama” can deconstruct itself into atoms, until we might as well be holding Tupac’s lyric notebook for him as he lays down his raps in a Bay Area recording studio.    

Leila Steinberg, an early manager and mentor for Tupac, says in Dear Mama that she actually wasn’t managing an artist, but an entire campaign, as if he was running for office. And Rapper Ray Luv remembers that Tupac when he was just coming out, was so conscious that his hairstyle was conscious. Nobody else was carrying the message all the way through, but Tupac was. The themes he was exploring were always fully realized, part of a larger personal project that was cut short by his untimely death, and it’s that sense of determination that Dear Mama feels most compelled to illustrate since it was shared by his Tupac’s mother Afeni as she went from living as a North Carolina transplant in New York City to becoming a leading voice of the Black Panther Party’s powerful public activism.    

Sex And Skin: Nothing in the first episode.

Parting Shot: “He looked at me and he said ‘I’m never gonna let anybody beat me down.’ Stopped me in my tracks.” Afeni Shakur, who had not been shown on camera until now, is speaking about her son’s determined nature that was instilled within him from an early age. And Tupac’s “Young Black Male” plays over the closing credits. “Young black male, ain’t shit to fool with…”

Sleeper Star: “Yeah, let me tell you this about Afeni,” says Glo, her oldest sister, cigarette close at hand and seemingly in a mood to share some tea. “So we correct, so nobody don’t think I’m blowing sunshine up her ass. She got on my nerves. Do you understand what I’m saying? Wore me out. Because the thing that I had to do, all my life, is protect my sister.”

Most Pilot-y Line: In a piece of interview footage dating back to his time at Tamalpais High School in Marin County, California, a fresh-faced Tupac Shakur, just 17, delivers a take on the preparatory failures of the American education system that also speaks presciently to his eventual career. “We’re not being taught to deal with the world as it is. We’re being taught to deal with this fairyland that we’re not even living in anymore.” Tupac says his mom taught him to analyze society. “To not be quiet.”  

Our Call: STREAM IT. The five-part series Dear Mama feels like the Tupac Shakur documentary of record as it connects the rapper’s enduring legacy to the philosophies at work in his upbringing and presents its story in a challenging, rewarding nonlinear fashion.   

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges 

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Tupac was born in the 1980s. He was born in 1971.