Wu-Tang: An American Saga is one of 2019’s stranger creations; presenting itself as a semi-autobiographical retelling of the legendary Staten Island rap collective’s origins, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is really an urban melodrama in the vein of Power or The Wire, albeit one without the understanding of self the aforementioned shows pertain. Like the super group whose story it is fictionalizing, Hulu’s latest drama is a mess of contrasting styles, ideas, and approaches as maddeningly inconsistent as the Wu catalog. Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest, haunting interludes between musical sequences and trite gangster story lines; unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.
Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest – unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.
Co-created by the RZA (him and Method Man also serve as executive producers, with most members of Wu-Tang Clan noted as “Consulting Producers”) with Alex Tse (whose previous credits include co-writing 2009’s Watchmen film), Wu-Tang: An American Saga centers its story around a young Bobby Diggs, stuck between the drug world that keeps the family bills paid, and the music world he so desperately wants to break into. Played by Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders, the character of young RZA forms the foundation of the series, positing young Bobby as the connective thread between the many different characters and happenings in Wu-Tang‘s fictionalized version of 1991 Staten Island.
Problem is, so many of those characters and situations feel like echoes of 30 years of material from New Jack City to Empire; though there’s an undeniable understanding of the show’s fictional versions of Bobby, Sha, Dennis, Cliff, Ason, and company, Wu-Tang insists on drawing out their origin story from the same blueprint as its obvious cinematic influences. Which in a way, feels a bit self-aggrandizing; in its attempts to feel gritty and realistic, the influence of the show’s subjects on their portrayals seeps through the material, which at times, places its characters inside genre cliches in strange, self-glorifying moments.
That lack of separation from subject to screen is impossible to ignore; it only feels like half the conversation is being had, so reluctant to observe its subjects rather than deify them through cliched material. Take the character of Ason (aka a young Ol’ Dirty Bastard): Wu-Tang‘s first three episodes effectively portray Ason as the unhinged, lovable radical with crazy dreads that was his public image around fans; TJ Atom’s performance is wonderful, capturing the freewheeling joy that was the foundation of Ason’s unusual creativity and personality. But Ason was also a serial abuser, a rampant alcoholic and drug addict, and most likely suffered from undiagnosed mental illnesses (plus other traumas, like the time NYC cops took shots at him for effectively no good reason) that eventually led to his death in the middle of Wu-Tang’s New York studio.
Though Wu-Tang: An American Saga has every right not to engage with that part of his story, there’s a feeling of massaging ODB’s legacy through this show that I feel with every character, refusing to explore even the ideas of inner conflict and morality that makes the exercise feel… well, a bit masturbatory at times. Having the foreknowledge of their success, and their well-known influence on American culture is baked right into the series, an unspoken framing of every scene that allows its creators to not really engage with their own legacy on an interesting level.
For better or worse, it feels like a Wu-Tang album; one that straddles the line between honest storytelling and reinforcing its own worst habits, one willing to go on strange diatribes (the second episode has some strange, randomly inserted animated bits) and unsatisfying diversions, all in what feels like cherry-picked personifications of its characters. The most frustrating of these isn’t even Ason – it’s Shameik Moore’s Sha, an absolute miscalculation of performance and character that drags down the entire Wu-Tang affair.
Quite frankly, the way Raekwon comes off in Wu-Tang is dumb: in their attempts to paint him with shades of gray, the series simply leaves him as a big blank. Considering how integral he is to one of the show’s central mysteries – the first episode begins with him spraying bullets through the windows of a young Ghostface’s home, before stashing the gun at RZA’s family home – Wu-Tang‘s inability to explore Sha in three dimensions sells many of its big dramas short. Sha is meant to be conflicted, torn between his job, his dreams, and his childhood friends – but the show, and its audience, already know how the story ends, and Wu-Tang takes no chances at trying to define Sha beyond his actions, which just make him an empty vessel for the show’s lesser, more stereotypical elements.
When Wu-Tang is able to divorce itself from the friendly self-authorship of its story, there are signs Wu-Tang can find its voice at the strange intersection between 90’s gangster epic and musical biopic; sequences with Bobby’s attempts to buy a drum machine, coupled with Dennis’s hidden relationship with his boss’s sister are genuine attempts to bridge the gap between humans and legends, rare side plots that give Wu-Tang some sense of identity beyond simply mythologizing their origin story.
I just wish there was more of that, and less of the show’s attempts to emulate so many of its cinematic influences (or in the case of Method Man, shows he’s already been on), in order to build empty melodramatics around its characters, themselves largely a collection of archetypes Wu-Tang doesn’t want to add any unique, or unflattering, shades to. People simply are who they are because of their environment, Wu-Tang argues, at times even suggesting Bobby is the only one with a vision beyond the ghetto, beyond the short life spans and long jail sentences that have plagued generations of young black people (though in the rare moments where Wu-Tang does lean heavy into those sociopolitical elements, it does have a bit of spark), and nearly consumed the lives of the Wu-Tang Clan before they made it.
Whether the events of Wu-Tang: An American Saga are factual, are irrelevant: what matters is how those stories are adapted to the screen, and how the clear influence of its subjects colors their on-screen portrayals. Unfortunately, most of Wu-Tang‘s first three hours are too consumed by that thought to have anything interesting to say on its own; it’s rather happy to indulge itself in the habits and rhythms of other fiction, with the strange undercurrent of never letting its characters exude any kind of real, inner conflict about their inherent destinies. With time, maybe Wu-Tang will find that; but there’s little sign this series is more than a handful of evocative rhyming sessions, a few revelatory moments of discovery, and a whole lot of cliched storytelling and one-dimensional characterizations, in what amounts to an underwhelming adaptation of a quintessential American story.
- Dave East co-stars as a young Method Man, and holy shit, does he do a great Method imitation.
- There’s so much dichotomy between the show’s performances: where as Sanders’ RZA is so artfully constructed with subtle looks and physical performance, Siddiq Saunderson’s Dennis (aka Ghostface) feels like a gangster caricature, showy and large in all the wrong ways.
- There’s a speech given in a flashback about the “light” and the “dark” that is so laughably amateurish, one of a couple examples of Tse and RZA flimsily opining to the audience.
- another subplot introduces and disposes of a flashy character in the span of an hour, a cheap dramatic cash-in I really wish the show would’ve avoided, because it falls flat and swallows most of the third episode whole.
- Ultimately, these first three episodes are not very good – but I’m going to be sticking with the first season, because I’m curious if those few elements of promise can be drawn out into something powerful. I’ll check back in after the season finale.