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.
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.)