“Twenty-five years is a long time,” RZA said at the beginning of Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at Beacon Theatre Thursday night. The documentary, a four-part series that will premiere on Showtime May 10, tells the story of the Wu-Tang Clan, one of hip-hop’s most important and influential collectives, and comes amid the group’s 25th anniversary of their debut seminal album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
The impact the group has cemented is captured in a sequence of scenes that follow featuring Charlamagne Tha God, Nas, Seth Rogen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Seth Rogen speaking on their relationship to the Wu’s music.
“I felt seen,” Coates said at one point.
Of Mics and Men not only attempts to celebrate the legacy of Wu but demystify the mythos surrounding the group. Director Sacha Jenkins starts off the documentary series with two beautifully-shot episodes that are captivating, contextualizing the socioeconomic and artistic struggles the members faced that birthed the Wu-Tang Clan.
Every member is part of the docu-series: RZA, GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Cappadonna all make appearances. The episodes becoming slightly meta with scenes of the members watching archival footage of themselves in a theater are shown. The late Ol’ Dirty Bastard also appears, Jenkins touchingly treating him like a still-living presence. Archived interviews of ODB are used to allow the deceased rapper to speak for himself.
The series seems to function with the assumption that its viewers are veteran Wu fans while still being accessible to newcomers. There’s not much screen time dedicated to the martial arts film culture that’s commonly associated with the group’s inception. Rather, Jenkins highlights the members’ impoverished living conditions and encounters with the law that led to them wanting to seek better opportunities for themselves.
At different points throughout the episodes, the members recount selling drugs, shooting and being shot at, and being arrested, along with having to help raise and provide for their siblings, many of them living in a single-parent household.
“You depressed and don’t even know you depressed,” Ghostface said at one point while reflecting on helping his mother raise his little brothers in an apartment in the Stapleton projects in Staten Island.
Along with the racism black people faced in certain parts of Staten Island — the members recall how black people couldn’t go to Rosebank without being chased or told racial epithets by its white residents, with one scene showing archived news footage of a white man presumably telling someone black “Did you bring your crack with you?” — the members’ personal experiences shaped the stories they would tell through their music.
“They were masters at expressing their pain,” Mobb Deep’s Havoc said at one point.
But it was RZA’s own encounter with the law that incited his hyper-focused direction and creation of the Wu; RZA faced eight years in jail after a shootout in Ohio in 1992. He ended up being acquitted, and from there dedicated himself to creating the Wu-Tang Clan in hopes that he and his closest friends could escape the hardship they were enduring.
This fueled the group, as can be seen in archived footage of them working on “Protect Ya Neck,” the Wu’s debut single that gained them an underground following, or “C.R.E.A.M.,” arguably the group’s biggest and most well-known song.
It was also an attempt at the members, particularly RZA and GZA, being able to have autonomy over their artistic vision, the cousins having already had experiences in the music industry that showed them how exploitative and controlling it can be. A part of the series touches on RZA’s short-lived solo career as Prince Rakeem, where he was unfavorably packaged as a ladies man through Tommy Boy Records.
From there, Jenkins also highlights how RZA’s do-it-yourself approach was applied beyond the studio. He and the rest of the members went to radio stations and public television stations to get their music and music videos played, Bobbito Garcia and Video Music Box’s Ralph McDaniels sharing their own stories of learning about the Wu for the first time. John “Mook” Gibbons, one of RZA’s other cousins, served as their manager during the early years, was responsible for getting their music in stores. He did this by brilliantly enlisting people to go a record store and ask for Wu’s “Protect Ya Neck” single after the owner refused to purchase copies of the record from him, and used the same strategy throughout different boroughs.
The most compelling aspect of these first two episodes, and likely the rest of the series, is how it captures the complexities of a rap group that has become a global phenomenon. In 2019, Wu-Tang means so much — Of Mics and Men shows how the members’ gifts, talents, and misfortunes shaped the group’s foundation and how they expanded upon it. The end result is a work of art that’s informative, intimate, and entertaining.
“Understanding the Wu-Tang story is understanding an American story,” Jenkins said before the episodes were shown. As the night’s event ended with a performance from the Wu-Tang Clan and shoutouts to notable figures in attendance (De La Soul, Nas, Carmelo Anthony, and Kool Herc were in attendance, with the latter joining the group onstage), Jenkins’ words resonated even more, Shaolin’s finest celebrating their legacy at a soldout event in one of New York City’s oldest music venues.
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