Re-Opening Hollywood: Allen Hughes On How COVID Lockdown Has Enriched ‘Outlaw,’ His FX Documentary Series On Tupac & Afeni Shakur

EXCLUSIVE: Allen Hughes has resumed work on Outlaw: The Saga Of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, the five-part FX documentary series about the volatile life and legacy of the late hip hip icon/poet, and the Black Panther member mother who raised him with the values that infused his socially conscious music. The pandemic brought the progress of the docu to a screeching halt — Hughes did many pre-interviews and some on-camera interviews in the interim, but felt that Zoom interviews don’t hold a candle to what you get when you are in the face of an interview subject, even if you are six feet apart. What has surprised Hughes is how the interviews he is getting now are so much richer than before. He believes it is a direct result of personal reflection during the long self-quarantine, coupled with tumultuous events like the death of George Floyd and aftermath that shone a light on police brutality toward Blacks. Hughes thinks the pandemic might fuel a bumper crop of better docus as on camera subjects feel more passionate than they did when we all took life for granted.

“When we started doing interviews again, I noticed something that was really interesting with the subjects,” said Hughes. “There is this fragility and vulnerability laced through all the interviews now, like everyone had been affected by the preciousness of life. There is emotion coursing through the interviews now. There was emotion before, but it was a different type. It has made me more a fan of the documentary medium than the fiction medium, because of the way what’s happening in the world affects the DNA of the film. If I was just directing an action film, and we’d had to shut down, it wouldn’t really affect the outcome of the ultimate film.”

Hughes took on this job after directing the acclaimed 2017 HBO documentary The Defiant Ones, about the twisty road that led to the billion dollar partnership between Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. These music docus take him three years to generate, and Hughes said he is aiming for a spring, 2022 airdate on FX. That Hughes believes the docu form is superior to narrative films is saying something, coming from a filmmaker whose credits include The Book of Eli, From Hell, Menace II Society and others he directed with twin brother Albert.

“The last docuseries I did, man, that shit really changed me,” he said. “You can’t walk into an interview with a real person, who’s going through real pain, or anything dealing with the human condition, and bring some Hollywood bullshit. It won’t work. When we started this production about Tupac and his mother about a year ago, I got some interviews in the can, and it was going along but…even without a pandemic the documentary medium will change you as you take this deep dive over a series of years. And after the pandemic hit, and what I noticed is we had to all hunker down. No doing any interviews. It was a time out for everyone, a time to process things. The pandemic has been tragic, and we know people that lost their lives and their livelihoods. But the isolation forced us to be introspective. We put together a system where everyone could work from the cloud and process the interviews and research, which goes back to the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. And then you start doing these interviews again. Before, maybe 50% would be meaningful and the rest is bullshitting around and trying to find things. That went up to 85% towards the meaningful stuff, people letting you know where they’re at emotionally, very raw. It seems like people are on the precipice of tears every five minutes. There is a different level of emotion coursing through the interviews now.”

George Floyd’s death, witnessed in full detail on social media as his head was cruelly pressed against the ground by a Minneapolis cop’s knee on his neck, has in particular swung focus of Tupac’s memory away from the later years that included a jail stretch for rape, and violence over a rivalry between the East and West Coast rap star movements, to his enduring status as a prophetic poet whose focus on the racial problems seems particularly timely.

“Tupac initially was this social justice warrior,” Hughes said. “In every interview, we’d see him talking about these things. Police brutality, the prison system, the way that the economics in the ghetto work, and how the education system was fucked. He was always his mother’s child, talking about all these things that have come up fairly recently. Just the thing with the cops and Black men that we’ve all been dealing with since, you know, since the days of ‘fuck the police,’ and before fuck the police. Every four years, it flares up again, and I think it especially touches a nerve now. When you look at hip hop in general, a lot of artists talked about these things here and there, but Tupac, damn near in every interview, he was taking up that cause of social justice. I think that’s what’s hitting me. Outside of how powerful he was as an artist, how powerful a presence, and what a great performer and rapper and writer he was. I think the social justice thing/angle is really hitting a nerve with people right now because he was saying all these things then, and not just in the music.”

Among those whom Hughes has seen a difference in as they talk about Shakur is Snoop Dogg, who established himself as a star in the West Coast hip hop scene around the same time as Shakur did and who saw his friend as he lay dying in a hospital bed after being hit four times in a drive by shooting after a Mike Tyson fight. The 25-year old Shakur survived six days before succumbing in 1996.

“It was suggested we should get Snoop to go into the hospital room in Vegas where Tupac was on life support and I go, no, I don’t need that, I don’t need that from him,” Hughes said. “I was not going for it, but he went into it, and it was tearful, and I never seen Snoop like this. He started…and I just want to be careful about how I’m wording this because it was very spiritual, what he was saying, and it was very heartfelt, and it was deeper than what he had said before. He says,  ‘I know he couldn’t hear me, but my spirit was talking to his, I went in there with the right spirit, I was talking to his spirit, I wasn’t talking to him, it was difficult because there’s like, there’s this different kind of feeling, man, when it’s one of your friends, and he’s right there, and you know, we’re just talking, and he goes, and you know, you’re just talking to his spirit, and there ain’t nothing you can really do but just try to get to that…that real love across so that, he says, so that way his spirit can take that…’ And then when we cut, I went back and…because he wears sunglasses, and the people that monitored were like did you see his eyes? And I said I was in the moment, I didn’t see, and everyone was really moved and in tears. It was just, again, another example of like how someone who I had interviewed before, and it would happen to be something that I didn’t even want to talk about, it just went to another more meaningful place. I think Snoop went to a spiritual place that he hadn’t before, because of the isolation. Snoop took quarantining very serious, just him and his family. He’s already a spiritual dude, and I think with the George Floyd thing, and the reason why I’m bringing this up is because I deliberately avoided the Vegas hospital room and when Tupac…I did not mean to talk to Snoop about that this time. And he went there.”

Hughes expects the same when he interviews Mike Tyson, who introduced Hughes to Shakur and like Shakur, served time for a sexual assault, or Mickey Rourke, whom Hughes said was a “bosom buddy who taught Tupac about the lifestyle of fame,” and Tim Roth, who helped Shakur with the craft of acting. He’s covering Shakur’s whole life and mentioned the clandestine romance between Shakur and Madonna, bared in a breakup letter Shakur wrote to her that was auctioned last year. There is also depth in the story of Afeni Shakur, a political activist and member of the Black Panther party, who successfully represented herself in court while pregnant, after she and other members were arrested in 1969 and charged with several counts of conspiracy to bomb police stations and other public places in New York, charges that could have put her away for life.

Hughes himself is not an outsider to the Tupac story. The Hughes Brothers first met Shakur as they were parlaying success in directing videos into helming their first feature, Menace II Society., The $3.5 million budget film that came after the breakout success of John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, grossed $28 million and stamped the siblings as leaders in a wave of Black filmmakers. The Hughes Brothers hired and then fired Shakur from a supporting role in that film after creative disagreements during a table reading. When they next saw him as they were directing a video related to the movie, Hughes and Tupac began fighting. Soon, 10 of Shakur’s entourage pummeled the filmmaker, leading to lawsuits, a short jail stretch for Shakur, and ongoing bad blood. Hughes said he slowly came to terms with the indignity of the beat down, as he and Shakur made up and the hip hop star made a public apology in Vibe Magazine. Still, Hughes was somewhat surprised when, after the success of The Defiant Ones, the Shakur estate reached out. This was  after Afeni Shakur had died in 2016.

I tell Hughes that in rare quiet moments in my own life, unpleasant memories of childhood ass kickings sometimes rear up randomly and inexplicably, and still sting. I couldn’t imagine enduring a replay of getting stomped by Shakur and his entourage over the three-year process of this series.

“The Tupac documentary had been with another filmmaker and a year later, the estate came back to me and asked for a meeting,” Hughes said. “Usually if someone asked you to do something like this on an international rock star, it’s a pretty easy answer, right? I remember this was a Wednesday and I said to the estate, give me until Friday…I don’t know if this is for me. I get it as far as the statement of who he was as an icon, but I just don’t know if I have it in me to deal with those demons. And over the three days, the family was so sweet and said when people asked them why they wanted to do this with me they responded, because [Tupac] started his career with him, and we can see from The Defiant Ones he is the person to do it. To me, they said, to know Tupac was to fu*king fight with Tupac, and you weren’t a friend or family member if you didn’t know that.”

Over the next two days, Hughes let in a flood of memories about his past with Shakur. The good ones far outweighed the bad.

“I remembered the first time we met,” he said. “I directed Tupac in our first music video. It was for Digital Underground, a spinoff group called Raw Fusion, and he was in it. He wasn’t a star at the time. We met at a Waffle House with all of Digital Underground. He was this guy at the end of the table and I was like, who is this dude? He was unbelievably charismatic and funny, and you could just feel it. I befriended him then. The next day, we shot our first music video. I waited for him because we shot a little scene before the music video, and we put him in the scene, and I remembered taking a lot of pride in working with performers, and directing him on how to move and how to work the camera. But when it came time for him to do Tupac, you didn’t have to tell that dude shit.”

Hughes said he himself learned everything about image and the importance of marketing from his mentor, the late NWA leader Easy-E. He was happy to share the wisdom with Shakur as his star began to rise. “He understood iconography almost as well as Michael Jackson or Madonna, probably, if not more so,” Hughes said. “He definitely took direction, like, work this angle more, or you could do a little more of this, but you rarely had to say anything to him. He just was explosive, from day one.”

Hughes said he recalled bonding with Shakur over their lack of having a father as a guiding figure in their lives, and the importance of their mothers, who were both activists. And he realized that his own career was indelibly linked with Shakur. The Hughes Brothers were anointed media sensations along with Singleton and a few others from press that was hopeful that the makers of profitable urban dramas depicting life in the ‘hood would fuel an uptick in Black filmmakers, but just as Spike Lee predicted, the trend fizzled because of a complete lack of Black execs in decisionmaking studio jobs. The Hughes siblings were among few whose early success led to long careers.

“Tupac was becoming a star and we were becoming these big director guys and for the 20 years before, there was no such thing as 20-year old Black stars and filmmaking phenoms,” Hughes said. “If you were Black and lucky at that point, you were in college. Dealing with all the passions in that moment — and we were just as passionate as he was — shit’s going to erupt, and it did. But just because one thing happened like that, it did not take away from the journey of the whole relationship, which was very rich. What overcame me was the pride I have, not only in him as an artist, but our collective journey and what he represents for our culture and community and what his mother represents. We were there, and it did mean something, and I am still here. I realized I was the right guy for this.”

Hughes said he read all the social media comments after FX announced the project, including some by unforgiving Tupac fans. “A lot of them were wishing me all kinds of hurtful, harmful death type shit, you know, and it was just fu*ked up,” he said. “But I said to myself, Allen, you have to show them that this is bigger, deeper and more meaningful than anyone could ever know, and I know my heart’s in the right place.”

Hughes took to heart the lessons he learned from Easy-E, and made sure FX promised enough marketing and promotion to ensure that Outlaw gets seen by the widest possible audience, more even than would be possible with a narrative series or feature.

“We now know that just as many people, if not more, will tune in for a great docuseries than a great scripted series, as Tiger King proved,” Hughes said. “I was one and done on that series, but whether you loved it or hated it, motherfu*kers were watching that shit.”

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