Tupac Shakur may be the most mythologized hip-hop artist; after all, this is an icon who had so many posthumous albums released after his death in 1996 (seven, to be exact), that some fans started half-jokingly speculating, à la Elvis rumours, that he wasn’t really dead but was instead continuing to record in secret. Unfortunately, Dear Mama doesn’t mention that Tupac has been hiding for the previous 26 years. However, the five-part docuseries from filmmaker Albert Hughes—whose first episode had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will air this autumn on FX—does aim to shed light on its subject by examining his ascent to fame through the lens of his youth with his mother.
The friendship between Tupac and Afeni has received attention in recent years; Hughes’ series is even called after the number-one song that the rapper composed about her. The goal of Dear Mama is to show how Afeni’s involvement in the Black Panther movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s influenced her son, who subsequently grew up in a culture of strong, defiant Black militancy. Tupac, as shown in the film’s opening sequence, clearly internalised the advice provided to him by his mother and began advocating for Black Power at a young age. This was potentially perilous because his outspokenness wasn’t always met with favouritism. Likewise, the partnership between Tupac and Afeni.
All of that is covered in the first episode of Dear Mama, but perhaps not as clearly as one would anticipate in an investigative biographical series like this. Hughes undoubtedly has access to plenty of historical information. An extended footage of Tupac speaking passionately about his mother, racism, injustice, and the difficult journey that got him to Marin City, California—after stops in New York City and Baltimore—at the age of 17 while a Tamalpais High School student is particularly illuminating. There is also video of him performing as a budding artist, first with his early bands and later with Digital Underground, who gave him his first taste of the limelight and a stage to establish himself as a unique voice.