Following Showtime’s exceptional four-hour “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” documentary, RZA teamed up with creator Alex Tse for “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” a 10-episode scripted series that serves as more than an origin story of the Staten Island crew that changed hip-hop forever. It captures the group’s early polychromatic points of view and emerging creative brilliance, and like the best origin stories, “Saga” tries to be a series that both Wu-Tang newcomers and Wu-Tang fanatics can grasp and enjoy.
However, the earlier documentary did a more thorough job of capturing the music and the personalities in the group, and, more importantly, it told the story with much more clarity, making “Of Mics and Men” required introductory viewing – especially for Wu neophytes – before watching “Saga” in order to be able fully appreciate the series.
Set in early 1990s New York City at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, the show tracks the Clan’s genesis, a vision of Bobby Diggs aka The RZA, who works to bring together a dozen young, black men who are torn between careers in music and lives of crime but eventually rise to become the unlikeliest of American success stories. It follows the legendary hip-hop group’s formation against a backdrop of socio-economic inequality as they evolved from being a group of local rappers in Staten Island to becoming one of the most prominent hip-hop groups after releasing their critically-acclaimed 1993 debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
At the time, RZA was known by his real name Bobby Diggs; Dennis Coles was on his way to becoming Ghostface Killah; GZA was Gary Grice; Corey Woods was not quite yet Raekwon; Method Man was known as Clifford Smith, aka “Shotgun”; and Russell Jones was several shades away from becoming Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
With a membership that would grow to include Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and longtime collaborator Cappadonna, the Wu-Tang story is vast and could easily have occupied 20 episodes instead of the 10 that comprise Hulu’s drama series. The sheer number of characters (including several key supporting players) might make it difficult for those with only a cursory knowledge of the group to follow the various plotlines and understand what the relationships are, especially in the early episodes, which unfold more like a crime drama à la “The Wire.” Viewers may even struggle to find any of the characters immediately likeable or worth rooting for. It’s a complex story to unravel, with various alliances and motivations not always obvious.
But it all starts to congeal when Bobby Diggs/RZA fully commits to his dream of making music, and the prologue that is the story of the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan, as fans know it, starts to really emerge.
Ashton Sanders as Diggs/RZA is the heart of the series, in yet another clear-eyed and compassionate performance, capturing the young dreamer’s internal struggle between following his passion for music and providing for his family by assisting his older brother in his illicit schemes. Diggs, encircled by drugs and crime, as well as by the unrealized promise of his friends, sees hip-hop as a way out for them all – that is, if they can avoid their own occasional impulses to give into their worst devices, allowing themselves to be consumed by the unfair hand dealt by life in a typical “Dream Deferred” scenario. And it is this depiction of young black male vulnerability that was somewhat absent in the documentary that gives the Hulu series a spin of its own.
To be sure, it’s thankfully not a hagiography, as one might expect, given that real-life members of the Clan were directly involved in the making of the series. It’s a mostly warts-and-all fictionalized retelling of the Wu-Tang story. Before becoming one of the most influential and consequential groups in hip-hop history, they were evidently small-time, street-level hustlers, involved in violent turf wars on the verge of becoming deadly. And their seemingly improbable evolution over time is what makes their story so inspirational.
And so, unlike in other similar works, Wu-Tang’s eventual success never feels predestined. Painting its characters as possibly extraordinary but hindered by circumstance, life is realistically depicted in the series, enough to make their eventual triumphs feel like the combination of raw talent, determination and chance that it was, and not like an inevitability.
It’s a slow burn that requires patience. So viewers expecting to immediately dive into the music studio with RZA and company will likely be somewhat disappointed. This isn’t a musical drama of any sort; in fact, there’s very little actual creation of music in the first seven or so episodes. It’s more of a character-driven, coming-of-age drama about the lives of young black men from poor and working class backgrounds looking for a way out, and how they help each other learn to become men, without fathers in some cases.
But the series undeniably feels most alive when the musical elements are made central (the eighth episode, which depicts RZA’s Tommy Boy Records stint, is especially a highlight), and the coming-of-age crime drama takes a back seat.
“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is inspired by “The Wu-Tang Manual,” The RZA’s first written introduction to the philosophy and history of hip-hop’s original dynasty; the “Tao of Wu,” the second philosophical book, and the true story of formation of the Wu-Tang Clan. Hardcore fans will probably argue about whether the series does Wu-Tang justice. Those looking for a rudimentary rundown of the group’s foundation would be better served by watching the excellent “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” documentary released earlier this year. The story in “Saga” is more like an account of the truth.
“There are things in it that actually happened, there are versions of events,” co-creator and producer Alex Tse said at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour during the series’ presentation. “Spiritually, it’s very truthful and accurate.”
Joining Ashton Sanders in front of the camera as main cast members are Shameik Moore (as Corey Woods/Raekwon), Dave East (Clifford Smith/Shotgun/Method Man), Siddiq Saunderson (Dennis Coles/Ghostface Killah), Johnell Young (Gary Grice/GZA), and TJ Atoms (Russell Jones/Ol’ Dirty Bastard). Marcus Callender, Julian Elijah Martinez, Zolee Griggs, and Erika Alexander, Samuel Mckoy-Johnson, and Amyrh Harris play key supporting roles. “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is created and written by Alex Tse and The RZA, and executive produced by Tse, The RZA, Brian Grazer, Michael Rosenberg and Francie Calfo.
Produced by Imagine Television, the series debuts on Wednesday, September 4 with three episodes, followed by a new episode every Wu-Wednesday.