Tuesday, September 3, 2019

TV REVIEW: Hulu's 'Wu-Tang: An American Saga'

Hulu will launch its new original drama series Wu-Tang: An American Saga on Wednesday, September 4 with its first three episodes. The drama stars Ashton Sanders, Shameik Moore, Siddiq Saunderson, Julian Elijah Martinez, Marcus Callendar, Erika Alexander, Zolee Griggs, Dave East and T.J. Atoms.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first eight episodes.

The RZA wants it to be known that the creation of the Wu-Tang Clan as well as the successful careers of each of its members was not a foregone conclusion. It took years of hard work and effort just to get noticed and appreciated. It wasn't an overnight success. In fact, it's a story where many complicated decisions had to be made in order to support their loved ones. This is RZA's telling of the past as well. He is credited as the co-creator of the new Hulu drama alongside feature screenwriter Alex Tse. And so, he has his hand firmly at the wheel of the storytelling being depicted here. Method Man is also an executive producer on the project, with the remaining founding members serving as consultants. As a result of all of that, it can at times feel as if RZA and Method Man's stories are being told with a bit more introspection and care. Sure, the rappers aren't afraid to show the more unsavory corners of their lives and the choices they had to make to stay alive. But it also wants to highlight how their love of music and the camaraderie were the qualities that allowed all of them to escape from poverty in Staten Island. Sure, it also takes a long time for the story to actually get going in this narrative. The story starts long before creating music was seen as a viable dream for any of them. Instead, it was just a hobby that Ashton Sanders' Bobby Diggs felt compelled to do during his spare time. It's a story going to big places but it also meanders through the personal history in order to make it painfully clear to the audience that this is a completely new version of this familiar story. Showtime aired a documentary series about the Wu-Tang Clan earlier this year titled Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. Hulu hopes that more people will watch the dramatic series version of the story than those who watched the documentary. But it will forever be unclear to the viewer just how many people actually watched both projects. The two airing in such close proximity to each other could signal a resurgence for the group and the version of hip hop they sprung. However, it may be required viewing to watch the documentary beforehand just to understand some of the complex issues that were at play in this world. Right now, this drama makes it all seem like yet another prestige and gritty drama that takes place in the world of drugs.

There have been many stories told about gang life on the ground selling drugs in order to support one's family. The medium has extensively covered that concept. As such, it's difficult to find something new to say in that particular idea. Sure, it may be true to life for the story of Bobby and his friends. But it doesn't inherently make for a compelling new series. That's incredibly disappointing right off the bat. In the early episodes, it doesn't seem as if music is the priority. Instead, the focus is entirely on how Bobby will step up for his family and take over his brother Divine's (Julian Elijah Martinez) drug business after he gets picked up by the police. Bobby's friends Sha Rider (Shameik Moore) and Dennis Coles (Siddiq Saunderson) also happen to be feuding as members of rival gangs who believe that the other has made moves against them. Again, it's a lot of gang violence. That story is being told here in order to paint a bleak portrait of what life was like on the ground in the early 1990s. It seemed as if this was the only way to make it as a young black man in the world. It may not have been a lengthy aspiration though. Most people in the gangs understood that it probably meant a short lifespan. And yes, there are plenty of funerals and memorials held throughout the first season. A sense of loss permeates throughout the storytelling. Bright, young minds were lost because they were trapped as a part of a depressing and sinister system. One where they weren't given the tools for success because they faced a corrupt and racist world that wanted to condemn them to these current fates. The show handles all of that in an admirable way. It understands the vicious nature of abuse at the heart of these stories. It is so profound throughout this community that it makes it seem like such a daunting task to ever unify a group of people behind a common goal. It's clear that's where the story is going at some point. It's just not a briskly paced journey. The eighth episode is when Bobby goes out on his first tour. That is a powerful episode because it puts the music front and center. It's but a step on this complicated journey. One where Bobby struggles to maintain control of his voice. It's important. But it also highlights how the many narrative threads don't really come together in a cohesive way.

It is also abundantly clear throughout eight episodes that many of the stories start and stop in awkward places. There is a lot of ground RZA clearly wants to cover. He wishes to expose the humanity of his friends to show the faces behind the music and the rhymes. He wants it to be known that Ol' Dirty Bastard was more than just a comic relief character surrounded by scandals. He was the cousin who could bust out a hit rhyme in seconds. He was always a source of inspiration. But that highlights a significant problem. T.J. Atoms does his best to embody the spirit of the late performer but the storytelling never really gives him the time to showcase all of the skills and brilliance that clearly need to be on display. Elsewhere, Dave East does a strong job in mimicking the mannerisms that would become so famous for Method Man. And yet, it's hard to get a strong sense of what is driving him forward in a world where he seems far removed from the choices his friends have to make on a daily basis. That's not even mentioning the lack of any multi-dimensional female characters. Erika Alexander and Zolee Griggs star as Bobby's mother and sister, respectively. They are the closest the series comes to providing a sense of the female perspective in this world. RZA understands that he wasn't always kind and appreciative of his family. But that's a much more complicated story when it pertains to his relationship with Divine. They differ on the ways in which a person can claim they have made it in this world. Is it enough to simply get by for the moment? Or does a person have to continually grow or risk being seen as nothing in this world? That's the central question driving the family drama forward. But again, it's Bobby and Divine at the center of that particular story. It's definitely nuanced. It just pushes some things to the side even though it would be more interesting to see how music comes to be a lifeline for so many in this community. Bobby says to his friends that they should keep collaborating because he has these grand ambitions. The audience understands he will follow through on that promise one day. But the agony of time isn't painfully felt. It seems like many of them can allow time to go by with no significant changes to their lives simply because that's what the story needs from them right now. The season absolutely improves and livens up as it goes along. It just doesn't present as a concise way to tell this story. It could be rewarding to see the saga of the Wu-Tang Clan as a multi-year television experience. Right now though, it mostly presents as a narrative without enough focus and attention to the moments that will come to define everything for this crew.