More than 25 years after the release of their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the Staten Island hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan still occupies a prominent place in the genre’s (and popular culture’s) collective memory. Backed by RZA’s diverse, lo-fi production, the original members of the Wu-Tang Clan helped create the dark, gritty sound that would influence many East Coast records in the coming years.
The Hulu miniseries “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” produced by RZA himself and Alex Tse (whose writing credits include “Watchmen” and “Superfly”), explores the lives of the rappers around the time of the group’s inception, in and around backdrops such as Staten Island’s Stapleton Projects, stylized in the group’s music as the chaotic, dangerous Shaolin. The narrative centers around RZA (Ashton Sanders, “Moonlight”), introduced by his real name Bobby Diggs. Disillusioned by the crime and violence surrounding him, his friends and family, he attempts to withdraw into his passion for music, bolstered by an eclectic taste in everything from old soul records to kung-fu films.
Even for those familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan and its rather extensive mythology, the series can be difficult to track. While some characters such as Russel Jones (T.J. Atoms, “Orange is the New Black”), eventually the infamous Ol’ Dirty Bastard, are instantly recognizable, other members of the Clan are much less so, complicated by the fact that there is also a wide set of supporting characters. RZA is the most sympathetic of the bunch, torn between the necessity to support his family by participating in the low-level street hustle like many of his friends are and the desire to escape it all through music.
The other founding members of the clan are no less precociously talented in their own abilities, but are portrayed as much more cynical about the prospects of using hip-hop as an out from the reality of their lives. RZA is in many ways the main protagonist of the story simply because of his stubborn ambition and vision — since uniting the Wu-Tang Clan involved reaching across several types of dividing lines, mostly drawn up by the loosely organized crime rings the members were involved in.
“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is much less “Bohemian Rhapsody” and much more “The Wire,” with the first few episodes chugging along at a rather slow pace. This pacing does make it easier to eventually decipher the webs of alliances between the characters, but perhaps is not the simplistic biopic many fans were probably expecting. Ultimately, “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is less about the music of the Wu-Tang Clan and more of a step back from the legend, letting the world know just how difficult and impressive the group’s meteoric rise was in every aspect, from financial to logistical to personal.