Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni & Tupac Shakur movie review (2023)

The sensitive project features an incredible roster of people who sit with Hughes and crew to laugh, cry, and set the record straight about Afeni and Tupac, helping us see the many sides of both enigmatic figures. The documentary has a lingering personal nature, with Hughes shown hugging many of his subjects as everything wraps up. We hear from Tupac’s peers, his cousins, and his friends. We hear from Dr. Dre and Mike Tyson in passages about Tupac’s later days. Hughes’ interview subjects are often credited by first name only, like his aunt Glo (brutally honest and admiring of her nephew and sister), or his former Death Row Records collaborator “Snoop.” At one point, Hughes gets in front of the camera to share his own supporting role in this saga, which includes co-directing the rapper’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” music video with brother Albert Hughes and getting beat up by the rapper’s posse. Hughes shares this experience with an understanding heavier than any other feeling.

Meanwhile, veterans of the Black Panther Party, like Jamal and Shaba, talk about the force of nature that Afeni was. Afeni was a central part of New York City’s Black Panther 21 group, who was once accused of plotting against the government, and was the target of infiltration by undercover, manipulative police efforts like COINTELPRO. She suffered from addiction, which impacted how her son grew up; the two moved around a lot, coloring Tupac with a bit of New York, Baltimore, and Hollywood, and traumatic experiences with poverty, place brutality, and loss. But they remained close, and he expressed this in songs like “Dear Mama” (for which Hughes also co-directed the video). As Tupac ascended to rap royalty sharing his trauma and societal angst, while blurring the line between what was just an image and what was truly Tupac, Afeni was by his side.

It becomes evident in the series’ more jostling narrative shifts why most filmmakers haven’t attempted to make a high-concept duo-biopic documentary like this, but Hughes blows past any warning signs. Co-writing with Lasse Jarvi, Hughes’ ambition here is about big lunges, even if they are not graceful in how it goes back and forth in time between its parallel stories. Hughes is fascinated with narrative connections, overlapping images, and revealing coincidental details that can be made with these life stories (Tupac and Afeni had life-changing court cases in the same courthouse, decades apart). The story of Tupac is titanic and challenging enough; skipping back and forth between decades while giving his mother’s story almost as much screen-time can sometimes take away from the momentum of the project. This can be frustrating as the amount of information here does not do a disservice itself.