An American Saga isn’t a glossy tale – despite history being re-packaged and re-shaped for TV – but it’s also not a “warts and all” affair. It does what all biopics do. It cherry-picks for the best possible narrative while ignoring the rest, taking liberties where appropriate. That being said, it’s also been made under the watchful eye of RZA, with other members of the group on as consulting producers.Together, with writer Alex Tse, they’ve crafted a very compelling coming-of-age/coming-of-rage story about uniting to create an unignorable front of sound and fury. Naturally, a sound that’s also swirled up with most members’ love of kung-fu movies. Artistically, because this is a ’90s hip-hop tale and not an ’80s one (like The Get Down), it allows for interludes of animation – whether it’s a montage that looks like a Heathcliff the Cat cartoon or a segment that shows us an alternate timeline through the lens of a video game. These young men grew up listening to hip-hop pioneers (Ice-T, Eric B., Rakim, Public Enemy, etc) and were smart enough to spot the next evolutionary step. They knew the rules and knew where, and how to bend them.
On Staten Island, the least-glamorized/romanticized New York City borough, Bobby Diggs (aka RZA) escapes into his music. The first three chapters (er, chambers?) – “Can It Be All So Simple,” “Winter Warz,” and “All in Together Now” – chronicle Bobby’s unique position as a reluctant member of his older brother’s (Divine) drug dealing network, often torn between his family and his childhood friend, and chief rhyme-spitter, Sha (aka Raekwon). Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders is riveting as the quiet and musically-devoted young RZA, a boy who’s constantly pressured to give up his artistic aspirations to support his household via the crack trade.I mentioned The Get Down earlier, but not just because it also stars Into the Spider-Verse’s Shameik Moore – who plays Sha here, and played kung-fu-obsessed Shaolin Fantastic on the aforementioned Netflix series. The two stories definitely have a few cross-sections, though The Get Down featured fictional characters living within the real world of fledgling hip-hop. An American Saga, however, a decade or so removed from The Get Down, is way more devoted to the particular strife of the era. It has a darker tone, a harsher worldview, and a ruggedness that makes Wu-Tang’s formation truly feel like a miracle.
Thematically, Hulu releasing the first three episodes at once clicks because, by the end of the third chapter, a slapdash musical plan is being set into motion. Various beefs between the MCs are being put on hold for the sake of a possible ticket out of their trappings. Everyone has been telling Bobby to dash his own dreams, but eventually, most everyone starts digging out their old lyric notebooks for a shot at stardom.The cast – which aside from Sanders and Moore, includes Siddiq Saunderson (Ghostface Killah), Dave East (Method Man), T.J. Atoms (ODB), and Johnell Young (GZA) – is pitch-perfect, creating a desperate ensemble of characters who are battling the clock. Time is running out for them. There’s no Wu by the end of the third episode, but a connection is forming.
The first three episodes of Wu-Tang: An American Saga paint a rugged and desperate portrait of future performers trapped within a torrent of drugs and isolation. Solid performances align nicely with a heroic hip-hop origins tale.