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Hulu‘s new biopic series, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, documents the emergence of the Wu-Tang Clan, filling in the blanks of the legendary hip-hop group’s storied history. Similar to 2015’s N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, Wu-Tang: An American Saga drills down into the unknown details of their come-up. The 10-episode fictionalized series—primarily driven by the recall of co-creator, executive producer, and de facto Wu-Tang leader RZA—will satisfy (and surprise) long-time fans of the group.
CREATORS: RZA, Alex Tse
The fictionalized series fills in the blanks of the legendary hip-hop super-group’s storied history.
Emerging from Staten Island, the Wu-Tang Clan became one of the biggest acts of the ’90s, starting with the group’s landscape-altering 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Each of the members would go on to enjoy solo critical and commercial success, most notably Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
That a collective of nine supremely talented young Black men from a place that native New Yorkers hardly notice rose to fame during the U.S. crack epidemic is nothing short of a miracle. A biopic to accompany Showtime’s exceptional docuseries, Of Mics and Men, was long overdue.
The first three episodes of An American Saga now available for public consumption show a handful of compelling realities. First and foremost, the previous notions of the group’s origins should be thrown out the nearest window. RZA’s telling of the Wu-Tang history—with notable input from his brother Divine and other core band members—significantly augments the collective’s rags-to-riches tale.
Timing is another primary key. Even RZA is not yet RZA. Here, he’s young Bobby Diggs (Ashton Sanders), a part-time crack dealer and music producer coming up in Staten Island, New York City’s forgotten borough, during the late ’80s. (This is even before his days on Tommy Boy Records as a solo artist named Prince Rakeem, where he released the mediocre and off-brand Ooh I Love You Rakeem EP in 1991.) He remains stuck in the institutional hamster wheel, like every other young, Black, inner-city male. Director Chris Robinson highlights this existential conflict between the streets and the studio, propelling the goings-on for most of the members. Sanders, once again, brings a rare sensitivity to the role.
Elsewhere, rapper Dave East capably plays Method Man (born Clifford Smith Jr.), then a ferry operations employee nicknamed Shotgun. Shameik Moore (The Get Down, Dope) gets a good handle on low-level dope dealer Corey Woods—then known as Sha—who becomes Raekwon the Chef. Julian Elijah Martinez as Bobby’s brother Divine, TJ Atoms as Ason/Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Saddiq Saunderson as Dennis Coles/Ghostface Killah are revelations throughout the series.
The dynamic relationship between Coles and Woods ranks as the most fascinating. During the first few episodes, they are mortal enemies, warring parties in the crack game. With the show billed as essentially true-to-life per Diggs’ recollection, their contentiousness will ring unusual for fans of either. The pair eventually united to become one of the great unofficial duos in rap history as Ghostface and Raekwon. (Wu-Tang fans and ’90s rap aficionados understand them as inseparable as any formal duo, to the point that both appeared on the covers of each other’s solo albums.)
The charismatic performances and detailed cinematography in Wu-Tang: An American Saga run in lockstep most of the way, save for the overwrought crime drama depictions in the middle episodes. RZA makes no pretenses about where he’s from, never shying away from the grime and violence. Simultaneously, all of the group members show extraordinary love for where they were raised, if not the conditions. Set against the physical and moral grayscale backdrop of Staten Island, Wu-Tang: An American Saga roars to life.
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Kahron Spearman is a music and film critic whose work can also regularly be regularly found in the Austin Chronicle.