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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Issa Rae And Kumail Nanjiani Talk Their Black And Brown Dynamic In 'The Lovebirds'

As our latest op-ed points out, black romance films are having a moment, and The Lovebirds is adding a comedic twist to the matter. Ahead of the MRC/Paramount Pictures' premiere on streaming platform Netflix, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle sat down with the film's lead actors Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani to discuss the refreshing black and brown dynamic between their characters.

"I think it was just more exciting to me [to take part in a different romantic dynamic]. It was just that, and I didn't realize until later," said Rae. "Obviously with working with Kumail, it just like 'Oh, I haven't seen an on-screen pairing like this' and [I] was excited to play with him cosmetically. But yes, it's exciting to see a new and fresh dynamic in movies like this."

"When you see a portrayal of Pakistanis in American pop culture, generally, you're seeing certain lanes. You don't see us being light or funny or fun that often," said Nanjiani. "My family is very, very funny. My friends are very funny, so it wasn't even an attempt to try and show that [brown characters can be portrayed differently]. I just wanted to show how the people I know are. My mom and my dad are some of the funniest people I've ever met."

Watch the full interview above. The Lovebirds is streaming on Netflix now.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in 'The Photograph'.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Opinion: Black Romance Films Are Having A Moment

It began with a kiss. Just one decade after the birth of cinema, vaudeville actors and dancers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle gleefully embraced one another on film. They held hands and locked lips, giving the world its very first image of Black romance and intimacy on-screen. 1898's Something Good-Negro Kiss proved that love and affection was at the center of Black life. More than that, intimacy has always been essential to the survival of our people. Now, some 120 plus years later— cinema has finally reached the point where it has expanded to allow complex images of Black love, across time periods, between same-sex couples, and more recently, without being bogged down in trauma and pain.

Before Good-Negro Kiss was discovered in 2018, one of the earliest versions of Black romance in cinema was 1954's Carmen Jones starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Filmed in sweeping cinemascope, Carmen Jones follows a soldier named Joe (Belafonte) who gets so enamored with Carmen (Dandridge) that he becomes obsessive, even going AWOL to be with her. Though the film is sexy, and the tension between the actors is palpable — the romance in Carmen Jones is stilted to make white audiences comfortable. Hollywood was only willing to see Black intimacy through the lens of a renowned musical, wrapped in what ultimately becomes a tragedy. By the end of the film, Joe murders Carmen out of obsession and jealousy. Despite Belafonte and Dandridge's determination to showcase their sensuality, the material only allowed them to go so far. This sort of restraint would become the blueprint for generations of Black romance films.

Considering the utter chaos of the 1960s, it's a wonder that 1964's Nothing But A Man was ever made. A decade after Carmen Jones, Hollywood felt it was time to roll the dice on something different. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln as Duff Anderson, a railroad worker, and Josie Dawson, a Birmingham school teacher, respectively, Nothing But A Man isn't packaged for white audiences like the musicals of the previous decades. However, the burdens and pains of the couple's relationship, namely Duff's flakiness about commitment and the rage he feels as a Black man living in the South, fall on Josie's shoulders. Moving into the 1970s with films like Claudine and Mahogany, and certainly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Black romance on-screen would either be shrouded in comedic relief, or the relationships became the sole burden of the Black woman to bear. Often, both tropes were present.

Still, Black romance stories were always evolving. The 1980s sparked something new for Black sensuality in the movies. Though these were still heteronormative depictions, (aside from 1984's The Color Purple), films made significant steps forward in terms of diverse images of Black people. However, they still held on to sexist ideals. 1986's She's Gotta Have It used a Black woman's rape as a form of character development while 1988's Coming to America — billed as a comedy, rewarded its protagonist for lying to his love interest. This would become the formula for the many Black romance movies that came to fruition in the 1990s. Cheating, lies, abandonment, lack of accountability, and trauma are all very present in some of our most beloved films. Poetic Justice, Love Jones, Jason's Lyric, The Best Man, and Love & Basketball, all have some form of struggle love embedded within the narrative — typically leaving Black women wielding the shorter end of the stick.

Poetic Justice is riddled in misogyny, The Best Man has a serial cheater as a leading man, and in Love Jones, the lack of communication and accountability from both partners is dizzying. Moreover, women are often asked to overlook cheating, lying, manipulation, or being friend-zoned to present themselves as worthy of their male partner by the film's conclusion. Yet, in our quest to connect and see brown bodies sensually and romantically in cinema, we hold these films close to our hearts, overlooking many of the toxic traits of the characters.

Despite the mega success of Black films in the 1990s— following the debut of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball in 2000, Black stories in cinema, aside from a few here and there, were all but erased in Hollywood. Throughout this near decade-long drought, prolific director Tyler Perry was one of the only voices in the game. However, the quality of Perry's storylines, as well as the portrayal of his female characters, have proven to be problematic. These characters are often emotionally broken, angry, and at times unhinged. If and when they do find love in movies like 2005's Diary of An Angry Black Woman, 2008's The Family That Preys and 2009's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, it's after they suffer some dire consequence or horrific punishment. This was particularly jarring during a time when there were hardly any other mainstream film images of Black people on-screen.

Thankfully, as we pressed forward into the second decade of the 21st century, Black filmmakers, writers, and producers were knocking down doors in Hollywood once again. In 2012, Ava DuVernay stepped onto the scene with her stellar film, Middle of Nowhere. The film follows Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) grappling with the choice to leave her incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), to follow her dreams and possibly find new love with a bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo). Though this was a significant shift in the way Black intimacy, sensuality, and romance was depicted in movies, the real transformation happened in 2016, with Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning, Moonlight.

Loosely based on screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney's real life, Moonlight puts the Black male coming-of-age story center stage. However, instead of honing in on the violence and despair of the inner city, like the hood homeboy films of the 1990s — Moonlight focuses on Black love between Black men. First, there is the relationship protagonist Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) has with his father-figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, Chiron explores his queer identity with his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The film is a sumptuous duality of hypermasculinity against lush sensuality. With this film, Jenkins effectively shattered our expectations regarding Black intimacy on-screen, while unraveling why Black love in all of its varied prisms deserves a spotlight in cinema.

Moonlight would pave the way for 2019's Queen & Slim and 2020's The Photograph. Two vastly different films, one— a harrowing dramatic thriller, centering Queen (Joe Turner-Smith ) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) who are forced together by circumstance. A dull Tinder date paves the way for a standoff with a racist police officer who eventually lays dead, prompting our leads to run for their lives.

Penned by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas — the film is almost an antithesis of what we've seen before when it comes to Black romance in the movies. Instead of the tried and true formula of a meet-cute, conflict, and resolution, Queen & Slim unites a Black man and a Black woman through Black radicalism. They come to lean on one another, inadvertently building a foundation when there is no one else either of them can trust or turn to. The weight of their relationship rests equally on both of their shoulders, as they become each other’s ride or die.

In contrast to Queen & Slim, writer/director Stella Meghie's The Photograph, is a much-deserved presentation of soft Black romance, without the trauma or brutality. The film follows Mae (Issa Rae), an art curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) — a journalist who crosses paths with Mae's late mother's work. The film follows the typical romance formula, but the conflict and resolution aren't gut-wrenching or emotionally tumultuous. Mae and Micheal deal with real-life issues without being battered or broken. Both parties —like the lead characters in Queen & Slim, share the weight of their missteps and miscommunication. The Photograph is a recognition of straight-forward Black sensuality and love without the heaviness of Black pain. Despite all of this, the film has garnered mixed reviews. Since there isn’t any toxicity between the main characters or much comedy in The Photograph, it appears foreign to us. As a community, we’ve been conditioned to only recognize Black Love shrouded in chaos. Presently, Black women in particular, are asking Black people to look beyond archaic examples of love that are rooted in sexism, misogynoir, and rigid gender roles. Instead, Meghie presents two grown people who must hold themselves and each other accountable to have a chance at a loving and modern relationship.

Black women are also getting the opportunity to be seen as romantic leading women, in the broader scope of cinema alongside leading men from different cultures. Following the footsteps of the 2006 film Something New, where Sanaa Lathan's leading man was Australian actor Simon Baker, Issa Rae will become a leading lady once more in Netflix's The Lovebirds. The Insecure actress stars as Leilani, opposite Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. Rae is a woman who is grappling with her strained relationship with her boyfriend, Jibran (Nanjiani). The couple's commitment to one another is hilariously put to the test when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a chaotic murder mystery.

Black film, and undoubtedly Black romance film, has come a long way since that very first kiss was captured on-screen in 1898. With more women filmmakers at the helm, diverse projects, and the current wave of Black cinema in Hollywood, Black romance movies have the opportunity to give the next generations more nuanced depictions of connection, sensuality, sex, and intimacy. With films like Queen & Slim, Moonlight, The Photograph, and The Lovebirds — we have witnessed Black people from all walks of life and sexualities dive into romantic relationships with love, accountability, and self-awareness, which are truly the ultimate relationship goals.

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Black Thought And Questlove Secure First-Look Deal With Universal

Amir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter landed a three-year first-look deal with Universal. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the founders of the Legendary Roots Crew will create scripted and unscripted content for Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal TV under the duo's Two One Five Entertainment imprint.

“This deal is very important to us as we've been content producers and storytellers for our entire career,” Questlove said in a statement on Wednesday (May 13). “A significant investment from Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal Television in our vision allows us to share these stories on a much larger scale. Tarik and I see this as the next chapter to our careers, and we are very involved in the entire process. I'm directing, Tarik is writing and we both are producing.”

The deal extends the Roots decade-long relationship with NBC, first on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night talk show in 2009, and serving as the house band for NBC’s Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, which premiered in 2014. Questlove is also music director for the Tonight Show.

“Many of our initial projects have been music-centric content, and one of our goals is to become the premiere hub for music storytelling — a safe space for these stories to be shared across a variety of platforms,” added Black Thought. “Eventually we will expand outside of music with our stories. However, as we all know, every story has a rhythm and Two One Five Entertainment will harness that rhythm and create well-produced, compelling content.”

Two One Five Entertainment's roster of projects include the AMC docuseries, Hip Hop Songs that Shook America, along with Black Woodstock, chronicling the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The company has also had a hand in the Broadway productions, Black No More and Soul Train the Musical.

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