Dear Mama Review: Of Mothers and Sons

TIFF 2022

3 mins read

Dear Mama
(USA, 65 min.)
Dir. Allen Hughes
Programme: Primetime


At TIFF 2022, FX unveiled the opening episode of Dear Mama, which is set to air this fall. This five-part documentary series on the life and legacy of hip-hop icon Tupac Amaru Shakur is a virtuoso weave of histories that develops into a profoundly moving experience. Director Allen Hughes (The Defiant Ones, Menace II Society) tackles his subject with a dazzlingly layered approach that intertwines Shakur’s story with that of his mother, Afeni Shakur. This approach offers a deeper context for audiences to appreciate the Shakurs and their shared bond. It also envelopes the viewer in the socially conscious environment in which Tupac grew up.

The series is named after one of Shakur’s most famous songs, a tribute to his mother. The song “Dear Mama” is a testament to their struggles, including their rift during Afeni’s addiction to cocaine, and the love that endures despite the challenges. The song is also widely regarded as an anthem to single mothers everywhere, especially women who give their all for their families despite poverty and social indifference.

Distinguished as one of the most influential rappers, Shakur died from gunshot wounds at age 25 in 1996 and remains one of music’s top-selling artists. Much of his music addresses societal inequalities, and, as this documentary makes clear, he found his own ways to battle injustice and oppression.

Afeni Shakur, meanwhile, was a seminal figure in her son’s life, but also in the civil rights struggle. She was a Black Panther Party member who was pregnant with Tupac when she defended herself during a trial as a member of Panther 21. She was accused of orchestrating the bombing of New York police stations and an education office in 1969. She is also credited with effectively campaigning for patients’ rights in hospitals.

The key to Dear Mama is Hughes’ consistent focus through the lens of Afeni Shakur’s past. Afeni taught her son to question and to debate, even challenging his intellect with articles from the New York Times. Tupac learned from Afeni to hate oppression, not people.

Deftly combining candid interviews with archival footage, Hughes fashions an intensely intimate yet far-reaching experience. Personal recollections by family members and friends mix with archival footage of Tupac’s career and Black Panther news items.

There’s a restless energy underpinning Dear Mama that emanates from the very subject itself, one that matches the duo’s challenges against the injustice they witnessed. This force informs every frame of the deeply resonant documentary. Afeni and Tupac Shakur may be gone, but Hughes triumphantly conjures their fighting spirits. What makes this series so poignant is how Dear Mama is not just a retelling of history, but a vital chronicle whose place exists in the here and now.

Dear Mama premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Barbara is co-host/co-producer of Frameline who joined during its CKLN days. As a freelance writer and film critic for the past 30 years, she has contributed to numerous dailies and magazines including The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, Box Office Magazine as well as to several books. A veteran of the Canadian film industry, Barbara has worked in many key areas including distribution and programming, and has also served on various festival juries

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