Dear Mama

Rapper and renaissance man Tupac Shakur died a violent death in the late summer of 1996 when he was shot in Las Vegas at the age of 25. Many have tried to write, blog or film the remarkable journey of this influential artist but all fell short of capturing the essence of what made him so special, in
the opinion of this writer. He was a crossover songwriter, rapper, actor, screenwriter and poet who was reared by a remarkable, intelligent and creative woman, his mother Afeni Shakur. Their relationship is the subject of FX docuseries Dear Mama.

Afeni was deeply involved with the Black Panther Party in the late ‘60s and served time in jail on conspiracy charges to bomb police stations in New York. Her interest in the arts, political affiliation and social justice deeply influenced Tupac as a kid in New York where he was born and as a teenager moving with her to Baltimore and later Marin City in California; it became the foundation of his creative life.

The title of the docuseries comes from the song “Dear Mama” on this third album, which was a heartfelt tribute to her struggles and accomplishments. Allen Hughes who became well known as a feature director with his twin brother Albert for movies like Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and Book of Eli was asked by the estate of Tupac Shakur to direct the series about him. Allen also directed the documentary American Pimp and the award-winning four part TV documentary series The Defiant Ones. Lasse Järvi, who was nominated for an ACE Eddie Award

in 2018 for his work on The Defiant Ones, is also the editor on Dear Mama. Together with Hughes, they have established a unique style of editing and storytelling in both these doc series. They recently participated in a conversation with CinemaEditor. Allen Hughes: My brother and I started our career doing Tupac’s first music videos, “Trapped” (1992) and “Brenda’s Got A Baby” (1992). But I had to fire him then because we weren’t seeing eye to eye. He retaliated and it got violent later. So, people were surprised that the family of his estate approached me about doing this.

I agreed with the family that all the stuff that was done on Tupac never got it right. I said to them, “Give me some time,” because I did not know if I wanted to do it. It was personal and painful especially after The Defiant Ones that took three years to do. I was a year into The Defiant Ones’ editing process with Doug Pray who happened to be Lasse’s college teacher. We were editing almost a year and we were overwhelmed. He said that we should bring someone else in. He suggested some names and Lasse was one of them.

Lasse Järvi: The two of us really hit it off. The amazing thing about the partnership with Allen is we just view the narratives and the stories from a similar angle. A lot of it has to do with how I always thought that documentaries should be as exciting and engaging as features. Getting to work with a feature director just filled that desire. As a feature director he just really excels in reading the personalities and the emotions. He puts a lot of focus and importance on connecting with the subjects and then within the scene work amplifying that too.

On this project we did a lot of shaping and developing the narrative before we even shot a single interview. We do that based on a lot of organic conversations on a broader scope with the things we want to focus on. It starts with mapping out the structure and an outline of the narrative. With someone like Tupac it has its own challenges but it helps that there is so much research material already out there. There are so many things made and
written about him and then Allen who has his own history with him. A lot of my own research came from talking to Allen before we even decided to make this project because Tupac was also a character in The Defiant Ones.

Talking to Allen I realized there was so much more to Tupac than I knew. He’s one of the most well known figures of the past century but also one of the least understood because who has a life like that? And a mother like that? The whole purpose of the documentary is to understand what he went through and how that shaped him. What we talk about often is what is healthy confusing and what is unhealthy confusing. What is building some kind of mystery? How do you make the viewer trust that they’re in good hands? It will make sense eventually, there will be questions that keep coming up.

AH: Lasse is the one who convinced me to do this, he just loves Tupac. When we were discussing the Panthers we were missing some aspects and then Lasse finds stuff hidden somewhere on YouTube and presents it the next day. He’s relentless when he needs something to fill in the narrative. I made him an executive producer on this because he was there from the beginning of the project and he made it work for me beyond what I imagined.

LJ: What Allen really enjoys with docs is the connecting with reality, real life people, it’s real and tangible. What is unique about The Defiant Ones and Dear Mama is Allen wanting to blend the feature and documentary experience in that kind of way. I’m excited to see how he’s going to get his doc experience into his feature work. Docs have gone through a lot of innovation in the last decade. The viewers now expect to be entertained in a
certain kind of way when they are going to watch a documentary. That’s what we’re trying to figure out where’s that balance – we do not want to embellish but we also need maybe to augment reality in order to find that entertainment value. Does that mean you’re manipulating? Well the minute you ask your first question you’re already manipulating. But you want to stay close to reality and the essence of the story you’re telling.

AH: Based on how Tupac lived his live I conducted the interviews with an eye on Westerns, especially the Sergio Leone ones where you concentrate on one aspect sometimes in a very cropped image of a subject, like in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I’ve worked with rock stars, movie stars, big talent, athletes. I know how to direct talent, how to bring a performance out and when you’re interviewing people it actually works that same way. I can say to
somebody I’m interviewing, “Please tell that story again but now try to emphasize more on that aspect.”

Lasse says I am directing when I’m interviewing people because they’re actually giving a performance. Within what people say there’s a narrative and within that narrative there’s another and another. There are layers. It’s like an accordion where you sometimes have to expand something out and
sometimes you just leave it. That’s not manipulating or even directing, it’s guiding your subject. You have to have that kind of awareness in the moment with the subject. Like Afeni’s sister, she smokes a little. So I put her in the kitchen next to a table with an ashtray and a glass of water and she kept on going for two days. It’s a very simple set up and I’m weaving in and out like in a Western kind of way.

The guy who takes me down to Afeni’s house on this massive property, his name is Dante. He’s such a charismatic person. I said, “Let’s go outside.” Because he’s 10 times more charismatic off the camera and especially outside. So, we’re walking in the gorgeous North Carolina woods and I said to him, “Let’s make a bonfire.” I don’t know where this came from but I just had the idea that this would loosen him up. It was tough but we did it and it matched the spirit of things. That’s the great thing about documentaries, you’re shooting life.

We were for a week in affluent Mill Valley in Marin County where Tupac went to Tamalpais High School, to shoot in the projects in neighboring Marin City, and you understand what Tupac went through. During that trip we also stumbled on a never seen interview at Tamalpais High with 17-year-old Tupac and that became such an important source of information in understanding who he was and what drove him. I can see how this kid could go far.

LJ: Of course, many feature directors (including Martin Scorsese, Judd Apatow, Paul Greengrass and Ron Howard) started making
documentaries and they found that the challenges of making a documentary are a really exciting, engrossing and mind blowingexperience. It’s all  storytelling with different devices. All of this mixing of genres and artistic disciplines was present in Tupac as a storyteller – he wrote poetry and screenplays, he composed songs, wrote the lyrics … he was a rap artist, he was an actor and also filmmaker. In the year he died he was making a documentary about himself. That body of footage is a big part of our story as well. You might say that we’re actually completing what Tupac started.

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