After a year of non-stop mediocre biopics, the announcement this summer of a new miniseries following the rise to infamy of the Wu-Tang Clan, New York’s most game-changing hip-hop group, only served to make me nervous. After a series of biographical films ranging from mediocre to unforgivably reductive (looking at you, “Bohemian Rhapsody”), I couldn’t help but wonder: what’s the point of these films? Why present a story we already know in a way that we’ve already seen? If you tried to reverse engineer a biopic from the films and series that we’ve seen this past year, you’d probably end up with something resembling a Wikipedia article with cute nods to the audience and visually bombastic musical numbers. Given the incredible influence and meaning that the Wu-Tang Clan had, to give their history the “Bohemian Rhapsody” treatment would fly in the face of the gritty reality that defined the group and its music.
It took less than five minutes for the first episode to make me embarrassed about any doubts I had.
If all you’re looking for is a definitive yes or no on whether “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is worth watching, here it is: you could know nothing about and care nothing for the Wu-Tang Clan and this series, while a very slow burn would still be one of the most exciting watches this year.
Like any good biopic, this series is still enjoyable if you know what’s going to happen, but for the spoiler-wary, the rest of this review will contain spoilers for episodes one through three.
The series stands a compelling ethnographic drama about love, family, music, and transcending negativity.
From the first scene, it feels like co-creators RZA, leader of the Wu-Tang Clan and Alex Tse, co-writer of “Watchmen” (2009), want to soothe any fears that the group’s story will be in any way smoothed-over or glossed-up. The episode opens on a young Bobby Diggs, yet to take on the title of RZA, working on an early version of “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.” Cutting away from the warm glow of Diggs’ dingy basement setup, the camera follows his childhood friend and one-day Wu-Tang member, Corey Woods aka Raekwon the Chef, down the dark streets of the Staten Island projects. As Woods pulls up outside Stapleton Houses, the notorious project that housed several Wu-Tang members and affiliates, we’re introduced to a third party. Here, the mood shifts for a third time as we find the reason for Woods’ visit: a young Ghostface Killah, still Dennis Coles, a struggling older brother trying his hardest to support two siblings with disabilities and an alcoholic mother. He also happens to be part of a crack-cocaine dealing operation in heated competition with Woods’ own syndicate.
As the opening to a series about the origin of the greatest rap collective of all time, having one member open fire on another’s apartment, nearly killing him and his family is a statement so ugly and brutal and honest that it seems designed to immediately justify the show’s existence.
The rest of the episode and the following two follow Diggs as the poverty and violence around him force him to live a double life, reluctantly taking his brother’s place selling crack with Coles while they struggle to find time to pursue music, his only respite from the deadly streets of Staten Island. While Ashton Sanders gives a convincingly troubled performance as the sensitive Diggs being thrown into the harsh Staten Island drug trade, I found the more outstanding performances to be Siddiq Saunderson as Coles and T.J. Atoms as Diggs’ cousin, the eccentric and iconic Russell Jones, aka the Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Saunderson’s sensitivity shines against the dark backdrop of the drug-filled streets, especially in the scenes that show him taking care of his family. Atoms, while still a relatively inexperienced actor, manages to steal every scene he stumbles his way into. While ODB may be one of the most unique figures in the history of hip-hop, Atoms steps up to the challenge with a zeal that makes him an absolute treat to watch.
The show’s creators make no attempt to glamorize the beloved members of Wu-Tang. Most of the first three episodes are devoted to the violent crack trade, with most members of the group cooking and selling drugs to provide for their families. Whether we see Woods firebomb Diggs’ flop house, nearly killing him, Jones and Coles in the process or Coles setting fire to the face of one of a disloyal member of his posse, the show does everything but glamorize the characters and their actions. What it does do, however, is offer context. Every member comes from a broken home; Woods is homeless, Coles essentially raises his siblings by himself, Jones is consistently drunk or high and Diggs suffers from PTSD. Because of their criminal records and ties to the drug rings of Staten Island, no business will hire them, leaving them no options to support their family but to turn to crime. The way the show portrayed Diggs’ PTSD was surprisingly delicate and effective, his intrusive thoughts and memories blending into the beats he creates in an effective, virtuosic representation of music serving as his only escape from the violent world around him.
As I mentioned earlier, this show is an incredibly slow burn. This could turn away those who expect a flashy, quick entry into the Wu’s groundbreaking first album; by the time the third episode ends, there’s still no mention of the Wu-Tang monikers we’ve come to love or even the name of the group. In fact, there’s very little actual music in the first three full episodes of the series. The closest thing we get to any hint at the group’s future is when Jones splashes a 40 of malt liquor on a sleeping squatter and yells “Good Morning, Vietnam!” in reference to the famous Robin Williams sample at the beginning of “Wu-Tang, 7th Chamber.”
“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is not interested in holding your hand. If you aren’t familiar with the names and relationships of the members going in, it will not stop and explain each of their names, their meanings in the story or any other insider information that you’d expect right off the bat. I would consider myself a pretty involved fan of the group and I spent most of the first two episodes trying to match the characters with their Wu-Tang counterparts. There are very little introductions, as if the series intentionally draws your attention onto the very real, very flawed people that ended up becoming the grand and unstoppable Wu-Tang Clan. While it sometimes becomes a frustrating game of who’s who, the series trains you to stop caring as you realize the importance of the characters’ pasts so as to understand their futures.
So why make biopics? For “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” the biopic format strips away the grandiosity, confidence, attitude and larger-than-life personas of history’s greatest rap group to reveal the sensitivity, the flaws, the care and the wit that formed some of the most influential music of the 1990s. Even without the Wu-Tang tie-in, the series stands a compelling ethnographic drama about love, family, music and transcending negativity. While it takes its time getting there, the end product is unflinchingly Wu-Tang, and you’d do yourself a disservice by passing it over.
Brendan Lordan is a third-year student majoring in English writing. BL895080@wcupa.edu