Biopics are vital to bridge hip-hop’s generational gap. In the past decade, a slew of iconic acts have had their stories displayed on the big screen, reinforcing their importance to a hip-hop community with a woefully short memory. But many of those biopics underwhelmed because of time constraints. It’s hard to tell the winding, nuanced story of Tupac Shakur or offer each member of N.W.A. a full backstory in two hours.
Leave it to RZA and The Wu-Tang Clan to subvert conventions once again.
RZA worked with screenwriter Alex Tse to craft Wu-Tang: An American Saga, the mini series that’s vying to tell their legendary story with a meticulousness never before seen in a hip-hop biopic. The 10-episode first season, which premieres on Wednesday, September 4th on Hulu, is a patient slow burn, starting out over a year before the group’s conception. Many casual fans of the group may not know that in 1991, a year before Wu-Tang burst onto the scene, RZA and GZA had record deals with Tommy Boy and Cold Chillin Records, respectively. The series doesn’t even reach that prologue of the Wu timeline until the seventh episode. (Editors note: the reviewer had access to the first eight episodes.)
Viewers who expect to be quickly launched into studio sessions of the Wu’s 36 Chambers debut album will be disappointed, but ultimately intrigued by a story which initially radiates the vibe of a crime drama featuring drug dealers who occasionally rap. New York rap’s mid-90’s golden era is so beloved in part because of its unlikelihood. The 90s’ torrent of canonical lyricists making waves in the same place at the same time may never happen again. Beyond that divine timing, Saga writers do their best to exemplify the obstacles in the way of the Clan being cordial with each other, much less wanting to be in a group together.
The show opens with a conflict between Staten Island’s Stapleton and Park Hill Projects. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah are one of hip-hop’s most beloved duos. But before they were spitting darts and burning down stages together they were apparently spitting bullets at each other and burning down dope spots. Ghostface (still going by his real name Dennis or “D” on the show) and future Wu-Tang Productions CEO Mitchell “Divine” Diggs are warring with Raekwon (going by Sha) and eventual Wu Wear founder Oliver “Power” Grant throughout the season. It’s unclear what specifically sparked their conflict besides neighborhood rivalry, but they carry a beef that nearly gets bloody on multiple occasions. RZA, played by actor Ashton Sanders, is caught in the middle of the conflict, as he has dreams of rap stardom and wants both Raekwon (played by Shameik Moore) and Ghostface (played by Siddiq Saunderson) to work together.
The first half of the season showcases RZA being pulled in many directions. His brother Divine wants him to put his music dreams away to sell drugs, while Ghostface, Raekwon, and Method Man (played by rapper Dave East) all want him to stop dealing with the other two. The show places RZA at the center of its universe. Which ends up being an issue because Sanders, at times, gives an underwhelming performance. In episode five, he’s berated by Divine and Ghostface, then inexplicably subjected to a mobster walking into his house and playing an N-word-filled song on his stereo system. Sanders maintains a too-stoic expression that doesn’t convey the gamut of emotions RZA is likely feeling. It’s possible that he was playing to The Abbot’s reserved nature, but the dynamic undermines many of the seasons’ pivotal moments.
Source: HuluSaunderson excels in scenes where Ghostface is caring for his developmentally challenged brothers, alcoholic mother, and girlfriend-in-private Sheree, but otherwise, his frequent presence doesn’t light up the show, besides colorful moments in which the experimental cinematography projects him (and at times RZA) as a literal cartoon.
Other Wu Members receive less airtime. Writers balanced out that dearth with heavy-handed attempts to drive home the renown aspects of various Wu members. “The Genius” GZA (Johnell Young) is introduced at a funeral by offering an overtly scientific description of a gunshot wound, while Inspectah Deck, played by Joey Bada$$, stands almost exclusively by a window in a bid to illustrate an observational nature (famously explained by Method Man on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).) Dave East has difficulty embodying Meth at junctures. He does well in a fiery scene with a record executive, but his distinctive rapping voice is a far cry from Method Man’s elastic, raspy vocals. His status as a popular contemporary rapper could be doubly distracting for some viewers. Ol Dirty Bastard’s son Young Dirty Bastard does his father’s madcap legacy justice, offering occasional comic relief with one-liners and antics.
But ODB doesn’t have many scenes or much character development in season one. RZA made the curious decision to focus an inordinate amount of this season on his immediate family. Julian Elijah Martinez does a strong job as Divine, first making him a figure of ire with his pleas for RZA to leave music alone for the drug game but later eliciting empathy by illustrating the emotional strain of being a Black person convicted of a felony. Erika Alexander plays a resilient mother, Diggs, but it would have been interesting to see writers explore her feelings about having her house and mortgage paid for in part by drug money from RZA and Divine.
It seems RZA wanted to give the full backstory of his upbringing, but it came at the expense of his groupmates’ tales. Masta Killa and U-God don’t appear in the first eight episodes, while Divine’s in-prison brush with eventual group member Cappadonna is only briefly explored.
One role that consistently delivers isn’t a person, but New York City itself. The series does a solid job of capturing the vibe of the city in the early ‘90s, whether it’s the Carhartt jackets and Polo wear or a score featuring standards like Public Enemy and EPMD or rap stars like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane being royalty to the young Clan. Shots of the Statue Of Liberty and iconic New York skyline strategically convey both the characters’ aspirations for their version of the American Dream and the physical reality of just how far they are from those hopes in the unpredictable trenches of Shaolin.
In a particularly stellar scene, drug dealer Jah Son streaks onto the block in a car as Divine and RZA talk on the corner. He flashes a wad of money, then pulls out a gun on a truck that pulls up behind him — before realizing the person in the vehicle was a friend. Disaster was temporarily averted, but RZA gives Divine a frustrated glare to convey that he knows the next random pullup may be their last. Next season needs more of these show-not-tell moments, which further the plot and hammer home messages more effectively than dialogue that can be way too sanctimonious and on-the-nose.
RZA has been making inroads in Hollywood for years. The series feels like one of the first times that Hollywood Abbot has tapped into the visionary spirit that made him a legendary producer. He realized the group’s story couldn’t be told in just a couple hours, and is trying out a prolonged format that will be a test case for future documentation of rap history.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga isn’t a paint by numbers highlight reel. The ambitious series expands on history only briefly touched on in interviews and excepts of The Wu Manual. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of music history knows what the Wu became, which makes their humble, contentious beginnings all the more compelling to watch. While the ensemble cast is spotty, the plot drives the action and makes the show a worthwhile watch for anyone seeking the backstory on one of music’s most iconic movements.