Hulu's 'Wu-Tang: An American Saga' Shows What the Rap Icons See in the Mirror

The fictional series, based on two books written by RZA, is the most intimate portrait of Wu-Tang we've seen to date.

by Ann-Derrick Gaillot
Sep 10 2019, 11:00am

Image courtesy Hulu.

Over the decades, Wu-Tang Clan's legacy has wandered from its essential hood origins. While their iconic 'W' logo was once cultural shorthand for street-smart hardness and uncompromising authenticity, T-shirts bearing it now haunt H&M clearance sections and frat boy clothing drawers all across the world. The members' individual careers have taken them to places more Hollywood than Shaolin; Ghostface Killah, for one, has popped up on both the VH1 reality series Couples Therapy as well as on the outro of "D.R.E.A.M." (an acronym for "drugs rule everything around me," a play on their cash-obsessed 1994 hit "C.R.E.A.M.") on Miley Cyrus's latest album. And, of course, there's disgraced ex-pharmaceutical mogul Martin Shkreli, forever entwined with their 2015 album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’s history.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), however, the group seems intent on brushing off all that noise with a concerted media campaign focused on their inception and rise. 2019 was already a big year for the Wu-Tang brand by the time the new Hulu series Wu-Tang: An American Dream, a fictionalized version of the group's history, premiered last week. The Showtime documentary Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, released in May, reintroduced viewers to the group through the lens of its real-life birth amid the strife of the crack epidemic. But whereas the documentary reaffirms the significance of their rise and success, Wu-Tang: An American Dream drills down on the time just before the Clan’s formation.

Over the first eight episodes (the final two were not released to critics), we meet Bobby, Dennis, Sha, Gary, Shotgun, and Ason. (The casual fan may not immediately recognize the first five as RZA, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, GZA, and Method Man, but it's impossible not to recognize Ason as Ol' Dirty Bastard.) Bobby is a gifted beatmaker in the beginning stages of recording music with some talented lyricists in his circle. That includes his friend Dennis, with whom he sells crack around Stapleton Projects under the direction of Bobby’s older brother Divine, while Sha sells for a rival operation out of the Park Hill Projects. Meanwhile, Gary is launching his rap career, and Shotgun, a former lacrosse player, is managing a souvenir store. Over the episodes, we learn of each character’s trauma, rooted in violence both in and out of their homes. Their circumstances are bleak, but there are clues sprinkled throughout (like a television in Bobby’s room where he watches kung fu movies) to remind you what happens in the end.

Despite the built-in assurance of a relatively happy ending, the progression of Bobby’s music dreams within the series is secondary to the interpersonal storylines and ins and outs of the Stapleton-Park Hill tug-of-war. As to be expected with any dramatization, there are certain liberties taken for entertainment value. In some of the best (and all too rare) moments of creative departure, the show takes advantage of the Wu-Tang Clan’s long tradition of magical self-mythology (like when we see an early RZA-produced tape circulating through the hands of excited neighbors). But other departures, like the fact that Sha and Shotgun’s rhymes are always perfect the first time, make clear that what you're watching is an artist-controlled legacy project.

An American Saga is just one of a long string of biographical shows and movies created with the participation, and motivations, of the people on whom they're centered. 2015's Straight Outta Compton and the 2017 BET miniseries The New Edition Story, both dramatizations, were produced by the musicians featured; both came with their share of loose factuality. Straight Outta Compton, in particular, took notable liberties with its portrayal, or lack thereof, of women in NWA's circle and Dr. Dre's history of assault and domestic violence.

The closest parallel, however, to An American Saga may actually be the 1992 ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. The four-hour plow through the Jackson family's journey from Gary, Indiana to international superstardom wedged its way into the collective consciousness with seemingly weekly reruns on VH1 over the course of decades, becoming a brand-enforcing, longstanding part of our viewing culture. Produced by Jermaine Jackson and apparently approved by Michael Jackson, The Jacksons was riddled with inaccuracies.

But accuracy is irrelevant when it comes to self-created biopics, where a successful dramatization serves a more cemented, more tightly-controlled brand. This isn't, of course, to suggest that An American Saga is some sort of sinister coverup or defensive retelling of Wu-Tang Clan's past. Only that, even in each character’s most conflicted or violent moments—we see Dennis, for example, burn the beard off of a nameless addict's face—there’s a legacy-conscious cynicism haunting every shot.

An American Saga takes its time telling the complex story of the iconic rap group, moving with a slow pace that seems prepared to take its time taking audiences through the Wu-Tang story. By episode eight's end, Bobby and Gary are only at the beginning of their individual careers, while the Clan as a whole is yet to officially form. "God willing we'll have more than one season," series co-creator Alex Tse told the Associated Press.

The appeal of An American Saga isn’t accuracy, but the promise of intimacy it makes to fans. With its ambitions as a long-standing drama, the show aims to give Wu-Tang admirers one more product about the group to feel nostalgic for.

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