All In Together Now
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'Wu-Tang: An American Saga' Series Premiere Recap: Growing Up On The Crime Side

The series premiere shows the beginnings of what would later become the Wu-Tang Clan.

2019 has been the year of the Wu. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the game-changing album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and the introduction of possibly the deepest and most successful rap collective in music. Earlier this year, the Emmy-nominated Showtime docuseries Of Mics and Men granted a behind the scenes look, through each member's eyes, at their rise to group and individual successes, plus their accounts of the turmoil, infighting, and fall-outs.

Wu-Tang was the first act to pull the energy and lore of comic books and kung fu flicks into hip-hop in a real way, so in the pattern of those mediums, there’s now also an origin story, created, written and executive produced by Rza and Alex Tse (Superfly). Method Man is also an executive producer, along with Brian Grazer and Fancie Calfo. Wu-Tang: An American Saga is a mostly true, slightly dramatized 10 episode series that brings viewers to Staten Island in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, into the lives of the young men who went on to become rap legends, and introduces the elements that shaped them.

Fans hoping for a story of Wu’s career as an established group will be disappointed; this is “An American Saga” because it’s not just a story about the legendary rap group, it’s a story about New York in the grip of the crack epidemic. A story about navigating life with established battle lines based on where you live. It’s a story about hip-hop as a way out of the life and the hood with hip-hop as a product of them. It’s a story about fighting against stacked odds.

The first three episodes to introduce the series (all episodes are named after Wu songs) are more about establishing where Wu-Tang comes from than how they became rappers. Casual fans may find themselves going to google, as there are no chyrons or overt hints in the beginning to tell us who Bobby (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), Dennis (Siddiq Saunderson), Sha (Into the Spiderverse’s Shameik Moore), Shot Gun (rapper Dave East), and Ason (TJ Holmes) are destined to become, although Bobby/Rza is pretty obvious from the beginning; Ason/ODB and Shot Gun/Meth are cast so well they’re instantly recognizable. We meet them as they are and learn revealing details along the way.

The war between Staten Island’s Stapleton Houses and Park Hill projects is the driving force behind this series and the Wu story. The center of the narrative, however, is young Bobby Diggs; an aspiring producer who doesn’t have the heart for the drug game. He’s focused on music as a way to escape the noise, violence, and mayhem of his surroundings. He tells Sha early in the first episode, “This is what you should be putting your work into. F*ck the streets.” An unmoved Sha responds, “Ain’t making no bread off no music… It’s just a hobby we picked up in the lobby.” Bobby’s music pursuits seem like pipe dreams to most of the crew around him, including big brother and drug boss Divine (Julian Elijah Martinez), who later became the business mastermind behind Wu-Tang.

The pilot opens with Sha pulling a drive-by on Dennis’s house; an incredible place to start the relationship of Wu-Tang’s eventual dynamic duo of Raekwon and Ghostface. This puts Bobby in a tough spot: he’s working on music with Sha. He even lets Sha stash his gun in his basement studio, although Bobby and Dennis are both a part of Divine’s crew. Bobby knows, on some level, that Sha was responsible for the attempted hit on Dennis but feigns ignorance: don’t ask, don’t tell. Bobby’s love for music drives a can’t-we-all-just-get-along mentality. He writes early rhymes about “trying to stay neutral” between Stapleton and Park Hill. When hot-headed Dennis is ready to step to Shot Gun for interfering in business, Bobby pulls Shot to the side to try to smooth it out. He later tries to bring Shot Gun and Sha together to work on music.

Bobby’s reluctance to do what’s expected of him - not just by his brother but by the unspoken guidelines as a young Black man growing up around his way - quickly gets tiring and complicated for the people in his life. His dreaming and distraction ultimately lead to his brother getting popped, and then to almost $20 thousand dollars worth of product getting burned down in their stash house. That means leaving Divine in jail, where he’s unprotected, because they can’t pay his bail. Even then, Bobby’s singularly focused. As he, Dennis and Ason stand and watch the house burn, Dennis asks, “Yo, you grab the stash? The money?! Nothin?!” Bobby’s face registers panic, but his response is “F*ck...my music,” as he realizes he didn’t grab his walkman with the tape of his latest beats, either.

Hip-hop is ever-present throughout the first several episodes: Bobby’s working on beats, Shot Gun, Sha, and even neighborhood cats are writing and spitting rhymes with music of the era is incorporated and discussed (like Jah Son and Dennis checking out Cypress Hill in the car). But the music doesn’t take center stage for the cast until episode 3, aptly titled “All in Together Now.” The retaliatory murder of neighborhood favorite Jah Son (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) by Kingpin Cressy (Jason Louder) plants a seed of opportunity for Sha to find equal ground with Dennis and crew in the future. Shortly after, when Cressy promotes an Erik B & Rakim concert featuring a $5K-prized rap battle to win back the Island’s goodwill, future Wu-Tang members Dennis (Ghostface), Shot Gun (Method Man), Gary/Allah Justice (Gza), Ason (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and Bobby (Rza) all see their opportunities to hit the stage. When a group wins the rap battle instead of any of the solo rappers, Bobby sees the vision for the collective. The legend begins.

The series is promising. It’s mostly straight-forward (except for some of the Bobby narrative; we’ll get to that), and it captures the city at the time perfectly, from dialogue to fashion, and director Chris Robinson (ATL) is masterful at bringing urban, music-based narratives to life. This is not a bright, shiny, pretty series. It’s dark in places and feels a little muted, visually. Not unlike early Wu videos.

The cast is outstanding, especially TJ Holmes as Ason, Shameik Moore as Sha, Siddiq Saunderson as Dennis, and the supporting cast including an Erika Alexander as the matriarch Linda Diggs that makes you forget all about Maxine Shaw. The incorporation of animation in various places is also a perfect Wu-Tang touch.

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What The Episodes Got Right: Everything about the energy of NYC during the height of the crack era. Five Percenters kicking knowledge of Self. Black Isrealites preaching in front of the World Trade Center. Polo gear, bubble coats, Avirex, and bamboo earrings. I totally had a Nefertiti necklace like the one Dennis gave Shurrie (Zolee Griggs). In terms of Wu history specifically, Method Man did work at the Statue of Liberty for six years, with U-God (although it doesn’t seem the series ID’d the co-worker as U-God), and Rza absolutely got booed during his first time on stage.

What The Episodes Got Wrong: Some of the timelines are admittedly adjusted for the sake of the story (like Shot Gun working on what will become “I Came to Bring the Pain” in Bobby’s basement before the group has even been formed).

What We Could Do Without: The extent of Bobby/Rza’s centering. We get it, Rza is the key to Wu; he was the driving creative force and is currently the sole controller of the actual Wu brand. But the bewildered kid who just wants to be left alone to make his music thing is heavy-handed in moments, like when the elder Black chess player in the park asks him, “Who are you?” and the flashbacks to the time he and Divine spent with family in North Carolina as a kid. Yes, it's meant to give us a deeper look into the dynamic between the brothers, but we get it.

What We Absolutely Don't Believe: That everybody ran out of a stash house and left all the cash and all the product.

What We Have Questions About: Was Ghost really sleeping with Rza’s sister? Scandal! Will U-God be in this series? That’s definitely a coin toss. (We might not actually care, though.)

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Studio Finds No Inappropriate Behavior In 'Rookie' Afton Williamson Allegation

Back in August, former "The Rookie" star Afton Williamson publically outlined claims of bullying, harassment and sexual assault against the head of the show's hair department. Taking to Instagram, the actress alleged Sally Nicole Ciganovich and guest star Demetrius Grosse as the culprits. However on Tuesday, (Sept. 17) Entertainment One released a statement stating after an investigation was conducted, there was no proof to any of Williamson's claims. Williamson, took to social media to blast the findings.

“It’s heartbreaking for everyone on that set, past, and present, and for every actor out there who stands in the face of harassment, discrimination, assault, and injustice,” Williamson wrote. “As a black woman, an artist, an actor, in 2019, my speaking the truth, standing up for myself, and leaving an unsafe work environment changed things for a lot of people: black women, artists, actors, victims, and survivors of injustice and discrimination.”

Demetrius Grosse’s attorney, Andrew Brettler, called Williamson's claim "completely meritless."

"My client was libeled all over the media before any of the claims could even be verified. No one should publish serious allegations like these in such a reckless manner. Demetrius lost multiple jobs as a result of being falsely accused. We’re glad that the investigation has been completed and are grateful to eOne for its unwavering support. Onward.”

In a separate statement, ABC expressed gratitude the investigation was over.

“We are glad that eOne has completed an investigation into allegations on the set of ‘The Rookie.’ We are confident that eOne takes these matters seriously and that they will continue to look for the best ways to surface concerns and address complaints.”

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'Hustlers' Inspiration Wishes Cardi B Portrayed Her Instead Of Jennifer Lopez

Critics and fans have fawned over Jennifer Lopez's strong performance in Hustlers but one important figure wasn't impressed.

Speaking to Vanity Fair Wednesday (Sept. 17), Samantha Barbash admitted she enjoyed parts of the film that were inspired by her life, but most of it–like many adaptions of real-life events–was fabricated. Barbash refused to give her film rights to the producers of the film, leaving them to rely on the infamous New York magazine feature for the screenplay.

Barbash and former friend Roselyn Keo were arrested in 2014 for allegedly drugging men and stealing upwards of $200,000 from them during their employment at Scores, a gentlemen's club in New York.

Barbash pleaded guilty to conspiracy, assault, and grand larceny and served five years of probation. Keo took a plea deal in exchange for no jail time. The ladies reportedly indulged in the finer things in life with the money like cards and Hermes bags. The women have defended their actions after claiming the clients were beyond degrading in the club.

As Barbash watched the film with her family over the weekend, she was shocked at the inaccuracies. She tells the outlet that producers offered her "pennies" to be included in the film. She also says she never talked to Lopez about the role.

“I’m a businesswoman. J. Lo doesn’t work for free. Why would I? At the end of the day, I have bags that are worth more than what they wanted to pay me," she said. "She had my birthmark that I have. I used to have a piercing on the top of my lip. She had it on the bottom. She had a tattoo on her finger. I had it on my wrist.” But her mannerisms? No. I am nothing like that in person.”

The portrayal of her working relationship with Keo was also inaccurate, Barbash said. Social media posts of them partying together reflect a loving friendship but Barbash insists the film take on Keo (named Destiny and played by Constance Wu) was a lie. “She wasn’t a friend—she was a coworker.… There was no sisterhood—it was business and that’s it,” she said.

But the now-business owner praised Cardi B's performance. Although the rapper isn't in the majority of the film, Barbash wishes she was. “Her 10 minutes was a great 10 minutes…It’s funny because, when I first heard that the film was coming out, [my business partner] said [she wished] Cardi would have played me," she said. "Even though she is not an actress, she was in the strip club world and she gets it. She would have maybe played a better me. Not taking away from Jennifer. But just because Cardi was in the business.”

Hustlers proved to be a hit at the box office, grossing over $33 million in its opening weekend. Lopez has also received critical praise for her performance which could turn into nominations in the awards sector next year.

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Stanley Nelson Lays Bare The Complicated Cool Of Miles Davis

Miles Davis had it. Whatever it was, Miles Davis was the sole proprietor. The aura, skill, and style that oozed from Davis’ pores helped propel the trumpeter to stardom. His musical accomplishments were only made more striking by the swagger that garnished them. Davis’ cool, projected best on stage, was an unwavering confidence with a dollop of syrupy charisma. Even his voice, a sandpaper-like whisper, which came as a result of yelling after throat surgery, weaved its way into the mythological-like figure Davis became. To be frank, Miles Davis was a cool-ass motherfucker and he knew it.

Yet underneath Davis’ cool was a man equally tormented by the second-class citizenship his country forced on him, as well as his own personal demons. Standing up to the racist government sometimes proved easier than defeating his alcoholism and drug abuse. Those closest to Davis felt his venom whenever he bit, and graciously allowed their love for him to be a balm for the wounds he left. How could the same man who composed and performed Kind of Blue be responsible for the cruelty of those who loved him so?

Well, it’s complicated.

Director Stanley Nelson lays Miles Davis bare—his good, bad, and beautiful—to a new generation while crystalizing the jazz musician’s legend to longtime fans with Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. Nelson’s latest demonstrates Davis' complexity and all that he endured.

Nelson invited VIBE to his 5,000-square-foot Harlem office to discuss Davis. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the nearly two-hour film, Nelson offers a firm handshake and an even stronger espresso. He apologizes for not having much sugar but makes up for it with a Wicker basket full of snacks that sits atop his white granite kitchen island. I opt for cookies and sneak the last bag of white cheddar popcorn for the train ride back to the office.

As we walk past the stainless steel appliances and through the dining room, the September sun shines bright through windows striking the white living room walls. Several books about Frederick Douglass are neatly stacked on the dining room table. Nelson reveals the writer and abolitionist will be the subject of his next feature, but for now, the 68-year-old director is entrenched in promotion for Miles Davis, an artist he says “transcends music.”

In between sips of tea, Nelson explains why Davis will always be a figure worth examing,

VIBE: What is your definition of cool? Stanley Nelson: I think the definition of cool changes with the times. I think cool is a certain calmness and being ahead of the times. It’s also a certain sophistication, I think Miles Davis had for so much of his life personified.

What do you think are some of the ingredients that go into making a Miles Davis? I don’t think there are very many people, across all genres, who can compare to Miles Davis. Miles Davis did what he did for five decades and was a leader in so many different movements in music and in jazz. Miles Davis transcends music.

What do you mean when you say "Miles Davis transcends music?" Miles Davis transcended the music because he was a leader in the way he looked, in the way he dressed, in things he demanded as you can see in the film. He demanded that he be treated with an amount of respect. The fact that he had black women on the covers of his albums, all those kinds of things made Miles Davis so different from so many other jazz musicians, who we love and admire for their music. We love and admire Miles Davis for his music, but it wasn’t just the music that made Miles Davis special.

Miles was also undeniably a beautiful looking man, and this was in the 50s and 60s. Miles Davis had very dark skin which was something that was not in the general public how it was thought of, so Miles kind of flipped that on its head.

This is going to sound like a dumb question but I have to ask it anyway. Why did you decide to honor Miles Davis with this film? There are a lot of reasons for making this film. There are a lot of reasons for making any film so whenever filmmakers tell you there’s only one reason they’re probably just lying, or saying whatever their publicist wants them to say. For one, his music is so incredible I would say he is easily one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, maybe the most important, you can argue that in any genre. Two, I’m a jazz lover and three Miles Davis is a very complicated individual so it makes for a better film. It’s not a simple story. I also think as we got into the film that Miles Davis’ story isn’t only about music, but it's about being a black person in the second half of the 20th century in the United States and I think that’s what makes the film work on a different level than a lot of other jazz films.

Veering off from Mr. Davis for a bit, how do you decide which topics or events you want to turn into films? You’ve done the black press, you’ve done a story about The Black Panthers, you did a story about Emmett Till. How do you choose which one to make into a film?

One of the great lessons for me was the first film I made called Two Dollars and A Dream. It was about Madame C.J. Walker and it took me seven years to make the film and I realize at that point films can take a long time to make, to raise the money and actually get the films made, so it's really important that the film be important to me, at least, that’s part of how I think about films when I think about what to do next. I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to paint on a big canvas so I’m trying to make stories that are big. I’m not just making small stories.

Did you always have this mentality of making big stories? I think so. I think part of that was unspoken, not really something I thought of. If you make something you want it to be a success, you want it to be a big success especially if it's going to take seven or 10 years of your life.

Why was Carl Lumbly the one you picked to voice Davis? Carl Lumbly is a great actor and he’s someone that I knew. Carl did the narration for one of our other films a long time ago, so Carl is someone I thought of. We sent him a bunch of tapes of Davis’ actual voice, and he practiced and we got back to him in a week and asked him to give us his Miles Davis voice over the phone and when he did, we were like, that’s good. It wasn’t perfect, but we could make it work.

What I personally loved about the film was that you didn’t glance over Miles Davis’ bitter personality. I loved the interviews with Frances Taylor, but it broke my heart that the creator of Kind of Blue forced his dancer wife to drop out of West Side Story. Miles was not an easy guy.

That’s putting it mildly. I think it was important that we tell that part of the story. I think what makes his story so rich and emotional there’s that dichotomy with Miles. The man that made some of the most beautiful music ever created and then was so rough for so many people. How do those things exist? Miles basically ruined Frances’ career by pulling her out of this show.

Yes! He was abusive to her, and after a few years they broke up. Her career had been ruined. I think one of the things that was so great for us while making the film was that Frances was so resilient and so beautiful and so funny in the film. You realize he tried but he couldn’t break her. I should say that Frances passed away Thanksgiving of last year. It was such a joy to be with Frances and interview her.

What do you hope people who don’t know Miles Davis will take away from the film and what do you hope people who do know Miles Davis will learn? One of the challenges of making any film, especially a film about Miles Davis, some people come in thinking there’s everything to know about Miles Davis. Some people come in and say "Miles who? Why’d you drag me to the theater?" You’ve got to walk that line and tell everybody something new and also be entertaining.

My mission in this film is partly to entertain. I don’t care how much you know about Miles. If you walk into this film and it’s two hours long you’re going to learn something new, or it’s going to be told to you in a different way. Certainly you’ve never been exposed to Frances. Just being exposed to Frances in and of itself is a trip. Part of the job is to entertain and frankly, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool is in select theaters. Click here

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