If you’re a fan of hip hop, you likely know the Wu-Tang Clan has a wild, yet inspiring history behind becoming the "superheroes of rap" that the 1990s didn’t know it needed. But how did it all come to be? Wu-Tang: An American Saga tells the story behind the formation of the group of men from Staten Island who rose to stardom during the 1990s crack epidemic. It is a tale of triumph and brotherhood, and we all need to tune in. Here’s why:
1) The Magic Is In The Characters And The Talent
The Wu-Tang Clan members--RZA, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, U-God, Cappadonna and Masta Killa--each have big, hardcore personalities that must be studied carefully to be mastered. The stars of the series, Shameik Moore (The Get Down), Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Dave East, Siddiq Saunderson and Marcus Callender, though all fairly new and must-watch faces, shine in their own unique ways while taking on the complex history of their characters. Although not all members of the Clan have lead roles in the series, Moore (Raekwon), Sanders (RZA), East (Method Man), Saunderson (Ghostface), TJ Atoms (Ol' Dirty Bastard), Johnell Xavier Young (GZA) and Joey Badass (Inspectah Deck) embody each of their character’s essence fully and unapologetically.
Seeming to have found a niche in the telling of period pieces and untold stories at the center of the Black experience in America, Moore and Sanders portray two best friends who are at odds. Having been close since childhood, their friendship is challenged as the young men strive to make ends meet in two different territories. The grit revealed underneath it all is what keeps RZA’s calm and Raekwon’s edge tied to one another. They both have a clear vision of wanting more for themselves but have two different approaches to achieve it. Both actors brilliantly demonstrate the harsh reality of friends growing apart.
“I met Raekwon. So I make sure I have how he handles himself down. Then I stick to the lines. I have my New York accent. I know the Wu slang. All of it put together allows me to just exist on camera instead of pretending,” Moore told Rolling Stone.
East also embodies his character. He nails Method Man’s soulful taste and smooth mannerisms with ease. Making it a point that he doesn’t run with any crews, his character always stands on his own. Atoms’ ODB is shown to be a free spirit, floating through scenes with different members of the group at any given time. He adds the playfulness to the other members’ hardbody demeanor and is a character that is impossible to hate.
Saunderson’s portrayal of Ghostface is integral in showing the tension between the neighboring projects where the young men grew up, Park Hill and Stapleton. Hard on the outside, with a big heart buried deep down inside, he cares for his two disabled younger brothers and falls in love with RZA’s sister Shurrie (played by Zolee Griggs). Saunderson is able to carefully balance Ghostface's charm and no bs attitude in a way that makes the audience empathize with his character the most. The audience wants to root for him, especially when it becomes clear that Ghostface’s reluctance to do music is rooted in his need to prioritize his family’s safety and wellbeing. His drive to make ends meet almost overshadows his confidence in using rap as a ticket out of the hood, and Saunderson makes sure we see all facets of his struggle.
The inclusion of real-life musicians like Moore, East, and Joey Badass in this project also adds value to the series. The opportunity for these artists to be able to tell the story of a young, talented group that helped pave the way for themselves is a sort of passing the torch that we should hear more of in Black Hollywood.
“I feel like [the cast and I] are like the second generation of Wu-Tang, just in a different sphere… each individual actor on Wu-Tang [An American Saga] is a star in their own right by themselves,” said Atoms in a conversation with The Source.
2) Wu-Tang Is For The Children
Set in the 1990s, the key messages of the show are still relatable to today's millennial and Gen-Z youth. Though scripted, the series is full of raw emotion as we watch the Clan face the challenges of loyalty, brotherhood, resilience, coming of age, responsibility, solidarity and so much more.
One such gutwrenching scene is the death of Method Man’s close friend, and neighborhood drug dealer, Haze, at the hands of a Black police officer from the same neighborhood, who is driven by his need for power. While attempting to mediate an arrest from the officers who were called to the scene for disruptive behavior, the cops feel threatened by Haze's will to speak up and silence him, forever.
Unfortunately, this is a story we’ve seen too many times. In the current media landscape, we’re bombarded each day with news headlines regarding police brutality, violent politics and many other attempts to silence and dismiss marginalized communities.
As we see in the series, music and crime have gone hand in hand in hip hop, but the Wu-Tang Clan uses their talent to overcome the burdens of poverty they are faced with. In comparing their experiences growing up in Staten Island projects with the state of wealth distribution in our communities today, not much has changed. For most Black men, women and children, oppressive systems that were put into place decades before the 1990s still keep us stuck in survival mode, pushed out of our homes and weary with the world.
At the end of the day, it is imperative to understand our power as a community. Today’s Black activists and organizers bring communities together to learn about the history of inequality in this country and how to fight for our right to be treated and seen as human beings. It was an immense deal, and too extreme effort, for the group’s members, from two different 'hoods in Staten Island, to put their differences aside for the sake of solidarity. Realizing that they are better together, the group was able to show the world what they had to offer and successfully, after several missteps, make a mark in the heavy, New York hip hop scene. After all, "Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to f*** with!" And this is a lesson for us all.
3) It’s Made For Us, By Us
Fun fact, RZA spent ten years writing this show. Based on 2009’s The Tao of Wu, detailing RZA’s formation of the group, executive producers Alex Tse, RZA and Method Man took the group’s early history and thematically connected the dots behind each member’s personal story and how they all came to be part of the Clan. RZA has even described working on the show as “sacred” and “therapy.”
According to Rolling Stone, “it took four months to crack the initial story as RZA and the Wu detailed their mistakes, trauma, and eventual triumphs to a writers’ room tasked with condensing six years into a single season of TV.”
The power of having the ability to retell our stories is more important and more visible now than it’s ever been. Truth is, owning the narrative has always been a priority for the Clan. The series sheds light on this even further in scenes involving the group's, and its individual members, early experiences with record labels and deals. It's refreshing to see all the other Wu-Tang Clan members listed as executive producers on the series. To have constructed the story they all wanted the world to see and taken it into their own hands to do it.
Though there are several projects out that retell the Wu-Tang Clan’s story, this one is like nothing you’ve already seen. Compared to Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men and Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, this series is the only drama production that uses actors to tell the story of Wu-Tang Clan. The drama also specifically focuses on the group’s formation, whereas the others document them during the prime and beyond.
Whether you’re a diehard rap fan or simply in need of a new show to keep your attention, Wu-Tang Clan: An American Saga is definitely one to watch, so make sure you tune in!
Wu-Tang: An American Saga is streaming on Hulu now.
Photo: Getty Images
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