Moving Pictures
May 19, 2023, 06:28AM

All Eyes on Afeni

FX’s Dear Mama is a fascinating look into the lives of Tupac and Afeni Shakur.

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Allen Hughes is maybe the only documentarian who can say he received an ass-beating from one of his subjects. In Dear Mama, FX’s new docuseries on Tupac and Afeni Shakur, Hughes is quick to clarify that it wasn’t Tupac who beat him up on the set of Spice 1’s “Trigga Gots No Heart” video, but instead about 10 gang members at Tupac’s behest. The Hughes Brothers had directed several videos for the rapper’s first two albums, and when it was time to fund their debut feature Menace II Society, Tupac agreed to take a supporting role to help the movie get made. By some accounts, Tupac was unfairly fired from the film for asking too many questions about his character’s motivations. Others say the brothers were well within their right to recast the role—that his behavior was needlessly confrontational and distracting to the rest of the cast and crew. Whatever the case may be, it offended the quick-tempered Tupac and earned the directors a severe ass-kicking. The story is one of many that helped cement the rap star’s legend but one of only a handful that he’d later apologize for publicly. Hughes never had a chance to squash the beef in person before Tupac met his untimely end in 1996, when he was only 25.

In a way, Hughes is the perfect director to make a documentary about Tupac. Who better to tell the story of such a complicated person than someone with a similarly complicated shared history? As Snoop Dogg said in Tupac’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech (excerpted near the end of Dear Mama), he was “strong and vulnerable, hard-headed and intellectual, courageous and afraid, loving and vengeful, revolutionary and—oh yeah, don’t get it fucked up—gangsta.” That’s what was so compelling about Tupac as an artist. He contained multitudes, evident in every song he recorded, every role he played, every poem he wrote, every interview he did. Every topic Tupac touched—his friendships, his bitterness, his legal troubles, his sexual promiscuity, his imminent death—was something he felt passionate about, a passion that’s present in almost every second of Dear Mama’s copious archival footage. Beefs aside, Hughes clearly admires and reveres Tupac—a once-in-a-generation, revolutionary recording artist.

In one especially entertaining segment, during a deposition for a lawsuit that outrageously blamed the rapper’s music for a state trooper’s death, the lawyer asks Tupac about his godfather Geronimo Pratt, stating that Pratt murdered a California state judge. (Note: it was actually a school teacher Pratt was convicted of killing, a crime he was exonerated for only after spending almost three decades in prison.) Tupac shuts him down immediately. “Do you know if he’s ever killed anybody?” he asks. “Were you a witness to a killing that he committed?” The lawyer tries to regain control, saying “I’ll ask the questions,” but Tupac isn’t done. “I know, but that’s my godfather, and that’s disrespectful for you to speak of my godfather that way, and I will not allow that unless you have proof or are a witness… I would never do that to you or your family members.” “I’m just asking questions,” the lawyer offers, clearly bested. “I understand, but you cannot disrespect my family, okay?” Tupac demands.

One might watch this footage and reasonably wonder, “Who is this brilliant, charismatic guy who’s able to turn the tables like that? Where did he come from?” The answer is clear in the almost equal amount of time Hughes devotes to Afeni Shakur, an extraordinary person in her own right. The most novel thing about Dear Mama—what really sets it apart from previous film treatments of Tupac’s life, from the conspiracy nut fodder of Biggie & Tupac to the execrable paint-by-numbers biopic All Eyez on Me (a testament to Tupac’s significance: my word processor just suggested changing Eyes to Eyez)—is its bifurcated structure, which serves to emphasize similarities in Tupac and Afeni’s parallel stories (a choice that was partly inspired by The Godfather Part II).

The parallels are striking: both went to performing arts high schools; both were revolutionaries with one foot in the streets; both stood trial in the same Manhattan courthouse. The latter provides some of the most fascinating material, showing how Afeni, with no legal training, successfully defended herself in court against conspiracy charges. Afeni was an active Black Panther until the organization’s dissolution, which the documentary mostly attributes to the FBI’s insidious COINTELPRO campaign. When Panther infiltrator/FBI informant William O’Neal appears in archival footage at one point, a giant SNITCH is superimposed over his face—a rare laugh out loud moment in a series that’s otherwise short on levity.

Like many former Panthers, the subsequent years were hard on Afeni, who fell into crack addiction when Tupac was a teenager—a source of instability and conflict in the Shakur house. A lack of income required several moves, including a four-year stay in Baltimore, residing at 3955 Greenmount Ave—about a mile from my house and, coincidentally, on the same block as the Marble house from Pink Flamingos. Tupac’s time in Baltimore, especially at the School for the Arts, proved arguably just as formative to his artistic development as the Black Panthers and street hustlers he looked up to. A guy with THUG LIFE tattooed to his abdomen who did ballet and once choreographed a performance to Don McLean’s “Vincent.” Multitudes.

Afeni overcame her addiction and repaired the relationship with her son, serving as his closest confidant until his death. (Their close relationship carries minor echoes of Jimmy Cagney and his “Ma” in White Heat—the favorite movie of Bishop, Tupac's character in Juice.) For me, part of why “Dear Mama” is such a great song is the closeness I feel to Afeni—to her joys, her problems, her pain, her strength, her perseverance, her unconditional love for her son—while listening to it. For a guy who could be famously verbose in interviews, whose stanzas were often packed with syllables, Tupac was also capable of brilliant word economy. “Mama made miracles every Thanksgiving.” So short and to the point, saying so much with so few words, it’s a line that hits you right in the gut, the kind of writing that makes me question what the hell I’m doing reviewing cable shows. The song is about such a universal thing—loving your mom—but, because it’s from Tupac to Afeni, it’s also personal and specific, almost uncomfortably sincere. That’s what separates Tupac from everybody else: conviction. When he says “ain’t a woman alive that could take my mama’s place,” you believe him.

That conviction had its flipside, a hard-headedness and tendency toward narcissism that the documentary briefly touches on but not with the depth I’d have wanted. On the subject of his 1993 sexual assault charge, everyone interviewed agrees a woman was raped in Tupac’s hotel suite but that Tupac had gone to sleep before the rape happened. The problem is that the filmmakers don’t really present the victim’s side, which implicates the rapper more directly. It’s entirely possible that Tupac was telling the truth and that he had nothing to do with the assault, that it was all a set-up; that comports with much of what we know in retrospect about law enforcement’s obsession with rappers in the 1990s. But it doesn’t do anyone, Tupac or the victim, any favors to ignore or gloss over the actual substance of the allegations. I don’t expect Tupac’s friends and family to entertain the possibility that he was a rapist, but I do expect a dutiful documentarian to bring all the pertinent facts to the table.

On the other hand, Hughes is walking somewhat of a tightrope. If he goes too easy on his subject, people will call him a rape apologist, but if he goes too hard on him, people might accuse him of being vindictive or satisfying a personal grudge. With that in mind, Hughes does a decent job of avoiding hagiography, peeling back the layers and exposing Tupac’s complexity, right down to his complicated backstory. For as much as we know about Afeni, Tupac’s father has always been more of a mystery. Tupac didn’t know him growing up, and Afeni wasn’t positive about who the father was. She knew it was either Kenneth Saunders, a hustler who was later killed, or William Garland, a fellow Panther. She told Tupac it was Saunders, and according to Tupac’s aunt, that duality between parents—the Panther and the thug—formed the basis of his self-mythology.

After Tupac was shot for the first time, he awoke in his hospital bed to the face of a man who he thought, in the haze of the morphine drip, was himself at an older age. It was actually Garland, his real biological father, who helped care for Tupac during his recuperation. In most movies, the protagonist meeting his actual father would offer him clarity and peace, but Dear Mama implies that this discovery prompted a full blown identity crisis in which Tupac leaned heavily into his thug side. By all accounts, signing to the gang-affiliated Death Row Records—his very own Get Out of Jail Free card—didn’t help matters, sending him further down a spiral that would end in his death.

Anybody looking to relitigate the specifics of Tupac’s murder will be disappointed. Hughes spends only a short amount of time on the killing, refusing to open old wounds from the East Coast/West Coast rivalry that interviewees are quick to dismiss as media hype. Popular theories that Death Row CEO Suge Knight arranged the hit after the artist expressed a desire to leave the label are similarly rejected in favor of a less sensational, more reasonable explanation: Tupac and his entourage had assaulted a well-known Crip in the lobby of the MGM Grand earlier that night, and the murder was retaliation. For anyone who believes that the news media’s relationship with African-Americans consists of little more than a game of divide and conquer, the extent to which reporters and journalists were willing to pursue the bogus East Coast/West Coast theory will do nothing to persuade them otherwise.

Dear Mama raises the question of whether Tupac’s reputation as a thug might’ve been slightly overblown. At one point, Mike Tyson responds to a question about similarities between him and Tupac. Instead of humoring Hughes, he pushes back and insists they were different. Tyson is, in his own words, the kind of person who thrives in prison, while Tupac was basically “a good kid.” Tyson is pretty lucid and insightful about the destructive force within him, the kid who won his first fight at age eleven and decided he loved beating the shit out of people, but he doesn’t see it in his late friend. By his account, Tupac was a poet, a purely creative force—in a sense, the exact opposite of Tyson.

On lunch break at my day job earlier this week, I walked over to Tupac’s old house, which happened to sell only a couple weeks ago for $155,000, advertised as “a piece of Baltimore History” in its listing. I’m not sure what I expected. It’s one of many unremarkable, century-old townhouses on the long stretch of Greenmount above 39th St., before it becomes York Rd. The neighborhood is probably in better condition than when Tupac lived here, except for the physical state of the actual street, which is hard to imagine as any worse. If it was ever an area where one might feel unsafe during daylight, it isn’t anymore.

I thought about Tupac walking down Greenmount, maybe catching a bus to school. I imagined Afeni watching him from the porch, telling him she loved him—neither of them possibly aware of what life soon had in store for them. It’s easy to treat someone like Tupac—a flame that burned hot and went out quickly, as his aunt says—as an icon or legend, a hero larger than life itself, but Dear Mama reminds us that he was once just a kid who caught the bus to school. A kid whose circumstances forced him to grow up quicker than most, whose early success came at a deadly price. Walking around Tupac’s old stomping grounds, I think about all the other Tupacs living among us, kids with similar gifts and intelligence, and part of me wonders if any of them might achieve the sort of larger than life notoriety that Tupac did. Considering how it ended for him, I hope not.


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