'Dear Mama' Review: FX Docuseries on Tupac Shakur, Afeni Shakur
DEAR MAMA “Panther Power” Episode 1 (Airs Friday, April 21). Pictured: Tupac Shakur. CR: FX

‘Dear Mama’ Review: FX Docuseries on Tupac Shakur, Afeni Shakur

Director Allen Hughes has evolved into a deft and imaginative documentarian, just the latest pleasant surprise in a long, eclectic career. His best-known films are the scripted fare he co-directed with his twin brother Albert, including “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents,” which dove deep into the lives of young, disaffected Black men. The brothers dabbled in documentary with 1999’s “American Pimp,” another film about Black men thriving (and suffering, and causing suffering) in a brutal subculture, but the film’s insights were mostly washed out by its prurience.

Since then, the Hugheses have pursued solo projects, but Allen found new traction with “The Defiant Ones,” the HBO docuseries chronicling the durable and fruitful partnership between Dr. Dre and Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine. The brilliance of that show, which earned a Grammy and five Emmy nods, was in its format and structure. Hughes plots the key points of their professional and personal journeys, from their initial meeting to their eventual $3 billion sale of Beats Audio. Because the hip hop producer and music executive affected so many aspects of their industry at the time, an exploration of their friendship became a microcosmic portrait of a seminal period for American music. 

With his latest docuseries, FX’s “Dear Mama,” Hughes takes that potent formula and applies it to a very different kind of relationship: the inviolable bond between Tupac Shakur and his mother Afeni Shakur. The tone is quite different — more elegiac than exhilarating — but fitting for a posthumous celebration of Afeni, who died in 2016, just months shy of the 30th anniversary of Tupac’s unsettling death in a drive-by shooting. Combining their lives into a single docuseries creates an experience far greater than the sum of its parts. Beyond its intimate and nuanced portrayal of their relationship, “Dear Mama” miniaturizes a huge swath of Black life without diluting it.

The first episode is dominated by Tupac, beginning with the night of his death, working its way back to his youth, and delving into his continued global legacy. (A montage of far-flung Tupac street murals is a bracing reminder of the impact he made in his all-too-brief 25 years.) The series of events leading up to the fatal shooting began with a fist fight in a Las Vegas casino, Tupac’s act of retaliation against a man accused of robbing his friend. Hughes argues, using interviews with Pac’s friends, family and collaborators, that Tupac was essentially driven by a desire to protect people who had been wronged.

That’s a quality Tupac inherited from Afeni, to whom he paid tribute in the song the docuseries is named after. Afeni was a vocal and visible member of the Black Panther Party, and her son shared the same inclination toward counterculture that informed his early, commentary-laden songs. After Tupac joined the infamous Death Row Records (with which he was reportedly intent on cutting ties prior to his death), Afeni finds herself less and less able to recognize her son. “Dear Mama” does a masterful job of explaining the many similarities between the two, and the pitfalls that led Tupac to end up living a radically different life than his mother. Even as their lives seem to echo each other, as when the show juxtaposes their respective legal battles, the show highlights how dramatically their paths have diverged. (Afeni stands trial for her alleged role in bombing a police station, while Tupac is sentenced for sexual assault.)

The series moves at a breakneck speed, but Hughes’ impressionistic visuals and more-is-more approach to sound design justifies that. “Dear Mama” is similar to looking at a Shakur family photo album through a microscope and a kaleidoscope at the same time. While Hughes occasionally indulges in genre tropes — if someone asks for a break to cry and compose themselves, that request will always make the cut — “Dear Mama” is incisive and inventive enough to extend his intriguing second act.