This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) made us particularly excited about some upcoming releases and near the top of our list is the FX Dear Mama series about Tupac Shakur and his mother, Black Panther and activist Afeni.
In the first episode of the five-part documentary series, Allen Hughes (The Defiant Ones) expertly combines archival footage with interviews featuring individuals close to Tupac and Afeni to create an in-depth look at the mother-son pair, in addition to providing thorough historical and social context for their relationship.
A key highlight in what we’ve seen of Dear Mama is the way the series highlights Afeni’s role in Panther 21 and her activism more broadly, it also effectively paints a picture of the circumstances under which Tupac was raised.
“The [Tupac] estate approached me and the family approached me about coming down and doing it, and I wasn't sure, I was like, ‘I don't know if this is for me,’...some of his fans are really hardcore,” Hughes told Yahoo Canada about beginning this project. “His mother's narrative was extremely misunderstood, so [I said], 'only on one condition,...it has to be about him and his mother, and we have to weave the narratives.'”
“A lot of stories and people treated Afeni as, ‘Oh it was the Black Panther mother who had a drug problem’… but it was much more complicated,” producer Jamal Joseph added.
Joseph is not only a producer on Dear Mama, but he is also a Panther veteran who knew Afeni and Tupac personally.
“I had been close with Afeni for most of my life,...I knew this was a dream for her and a vision for her, she wanted to preserve her son's legacy,” Joseph told Yahoo Canada. “It was never about the money with Afeni, it was never about the personal fame with Afeni, it was preserving that legacy to her, preserving that legacy for Tupac, who's one of our firstborn, in terms of Panther children, we affectionately call them Panther cubs.”
“Because he was Afeni’s child he was like a prince. We're at a time where we’re talking about royal funerals and successions, so those hopes and dreams were really important and those who came around wanted to see that story told for that reason… When I heard that Allen was involved, I got really excited because I'm a real fan of his work and his perspective.”
'I start with great characters'
It’s that “perspective” that Jamal Joseph highlights that really makes Dear Mama a captivating story, particularly when there are a number of different elements that have to be balanced, from Tupac’s personal story, Afeni’s story, their relationship with each other and the historical context of the narrative as a whole.
“I start with great characters and they just take the lead from there,” Allen Hughes explained. “[Jamal] can be incredibly dynamic, and dense, all that street background, all the Panther background, all the academic background and the prison background, you’re just logging all of it.”
“What's interesting about Allen's work, in the way the film is edited, is that for us, all of that information was related,” Joseph added. “What was going on in the community politically, socially, and the class structure within the Black community and our relationship with other folks, with the student movement, with people who were a part of the peace movement and with our grandmothers, and with the drug dealers, this was all complicated stuff happening at once.”
“So in a given day as a young Panther, I'd be with older Panthers who would be, one minute, on street corners talking about gang members and drug dealers, and then the next minute on Columbia’s campus and [New York University] campus, debating an economics professor or political science professor to a standstill.”
'I’m at a time where these stories need to be told in an urgent way'
An example of some of the interesting insight into Tupac’s legacy that Dear Mama provides is related to his ability to utilize a particular skill that had a connection to the Black Panther Party.
“Any place that Tupac went he'd be able to sit and use their slang, their language, speak like them,” Jamal Joseph said. “People loved him and he wasn't faking it, but this was a movement skill that we had in the Black Panther Party - relate to the people.”
The concept of Tupac relating to people, a particularly massive and diverse group of people that we’ve seen expand throughout the years, is a component of his lasting power as a music legend and cultural icon.
“With other people we can look at, we can say it was about the music and this influence, and this is what they do to change the game, and they kept it real,...but with Tupac and Afeni, it becomes this cultural moment,” Joseph said. “It’s something personal that they experienced, that touched their lives.”
“We’re at a time,...the Black community and all communities, communities of colour, white communities, LGBTQ communities, and I’m at a time where these stories need to be told in an urgent way. I'm at an age where I know how important it is to download it and to have it exist in different ways so that people can reference it, so that these stories can motivate people, activate people, comfort people,...see the rough times that we came through, but survived, and then some of those ideas are still alive.”
Allen Hughes also stressed that as critical as it is to continue to share these stories, it’s also imperative that people, particularly Black storytellers, aren’t blocked from telling their own stories. The filmmaker recalled a time when he was working on the 2005 film Knights of the South Bronx (partially shot in Toronto), for which Joseph was involved as a writer, but Hughes stressed that the film didn’t include any Black producers, and Hughes and Joseph never actually met.
“They kept us from one another...and it was our story, it's one of our stories,” Hughes said. “It was a uniquely urban story that [Jamal] had no control over, and I had no control over, and that's what's refreshing about this process right now, complete control over our history, our stories.”