Sacha Jenkins’ documentary lets the Wu-Tang Clan speak for themselves, as it should, considering all the surviving members are eager participants. Starting with the simple assertion that the Staten Island-born hip-hop group was named after the best — the best “sword style,” as RZA puts it — and became the best rap brotherhood there ever was, “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” chronicles every meaningful beat of the group’s ongoing career. And they do it as they’ve done just about everything: together.
RZA, ever the frontman, introduces each member over the course of a zig-zagging 20-minute opening. There’s Ghostface Killah, “the most dangerous villain”; Method Man, who always had the best hooks; Raekwon, the “eloquent” chef of the streets; U-God, who RZA notes “always had an aggressive violence” to him; Inspectah Deck, who “saw everything”; the 2007 addition and “slang master” Cappadonna; the man who “through his realness” became Masta Killa; GZA, “the genius”; and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who RZA remembered as having “a personality that was just raw and unapologetic.”
Each member sits in front of Jenkins’ camera — most of them in an antique wooden chair that looks like an unassuming throne — for extended interviews ranging from their childhoods through their breakout success and into today. Jenkins makes an early stylistic choice to capture them from the bottom of the floor to the top of their oft-capped heads, and then superimposes various floating images behind them. It could be photos of the neighborhoods they grew up in, or baby photos, or animated sequences illustrating an old Chinese fable.
Though Jenkins also draws on new interviews with everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Seth Rogen to Jim Jarmusch, he only uses the wide shot/black background technique with members of the Wu-Tang Clan. It helps keep the momentum up as he cuts together various footage, old and new, to match the long-running commentary.
During the first two episodes, Jenkins draws his audience through the group’s formation, their early recording sessions, and their eventual breakout with “36 Chambers.” In the modern day, the WTC sit in a Staten Island theater, spaced in the front section as various videos from their past are thrown up on the screen. Sometimes you’ll just listen to them banter, like when Method Man illustrates his still-sharp freestyle skills or the group debates who first came up with their name.
But what’s onscreen allows Jenkins to tie these scenes in with the past, and these memories — illustrated in beautifully restored found footage and discussed by the people who lived through them — are what elevate the documentary to must-see status for any fan. Ghostface Killah talks about how he may have suffered from depression without ever acknowledging it; it took all his effort as a kid just to take care of his largely immobilized brothers, which in turn led him to be tired, sad, and upset. Method Man talks about his own struggles with depression later on, just thinking back on the life he lives.
But a humorous high point comes when he revisits his first job: cleaning up after tourists at the Statue of Liberty. He still says it’s the best job he ever had, and watching him joyfully greet his old boss and former coworkers is an unexpected addition to the story. Still, all the landmarks are still there and dissected thoroughly: There’s RZA’s business plans for the group, and his never-before-done deal to secure rights to the band without giving up each member’s individual option to go solo; there are the party-like recording sessions that birthed their first hit, “Protect Ya Neck,” and later “36 Chambers”; there’s the adoption of the Five Percent Nation’s teachings, the crack epidemic’s effect on their neighborhood, and even some upsetting revelations from ODB’s wife, Icelene Jones.
Considering how much access Jenkins gets and the group’s ties to the production (they’re all listed as producers), it shouldn’t come as a surprise there’s little to no comment on anything unfavorable. Icelene’s remarks are as close as they get to addressing his assault conviction against his wife. The first two episodes don’t get into any of the group’s sometimes contentious relationships with other acts, even if the final shot of Episode 2 teases some tea might be spilled. But “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” is, above all, about the music and the messages behind the music. For anyone looking to learn a bit more about the group’s influence, or revel in reliving its prominence, there’s plenty to offer here. And it’s just shy of shaolin fantastic.
“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary series debuts May 17, 2019 on Showtime.