Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men Shines a Light on the Essential Darkness Behind the Wu
Of all the threads to be pulled from the sprawling legacy of the Wu-Tang Clan, a new documentary on the legendary crew tugs on one you might not expect: tragedy. While there is plenty of celebration and triumph in Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men—the multi-part, four-hour examination of the legendary Staten Island rap crew directed by the journalist Sacha Jenkins—much of the film covers the ugliness that crafted the group and the scars that continued to show even as the success rolled in. Speaking to Spin in late April about how he got the opportunity to make the documentary, Jenkins says that he told RZA, who was helming the project on behalf of the Wu, “I know this better than most people and I’m gonna see things other people aren’t gonna see.” What Jenkins evidently saw was just how ingrained PTSD, racialized violence, and poverty were in the group’s music, and as a result they play a major role in the series where they could have instead been an afterthought. It serves a reminder that as chaotic as the Wu-Tang Clan’s success might seem, chaos is quite literally what they come from. They were built to rise above it.
Early in the film, which aired its first episode on Showtime last Friday, the Wu discuss coming up in the Park Hill section of Staten Island, where most of them were raised, and where they developed a bond rapping together in cyphers. They also speak about the creation of their first album, Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, in 1993, and the ensuing fame and tension that came afterwards. When Jenkins asks RZA about the grittiness behind Wu Tang’s translation of street life and trauma, he puts it thusly: “We always turned the flashlight on things, you know what I mean.” He continues:
All those type of [lyrics] and energy is what we’re living and we’re not shy to express it… Those moments and all that shit we’re going through from every neighborhood, it’s either gonna come out in violence, where we woulda been famous for doing some crazy shit (laughs) or being famous for taking that violence and translating it to an artistic expression.
Much of the first half of Of Mics and Men goes deep into racism on Staten Island, from white residents unleashing or threatening violence at black residents to police murders of unarmed black citizens. One extended, gripping scene in the film shows a young Raekwon going off to a cameraman about police harassment as the cops search through his manager’s truck because “they heard he had a gun.” The footage exposes the psychic effects of state oppression on poor black people, which can’t be shed just by becoming a famous rapper. The fire coming out of Raekwon as he speaks to the camera about the way Staten Island cops treat black people—”with a lil bit of something”—reflects the crushing commonality of such an interaction.
Frustration and exasperation at life when you’re black and impoverished in America is at the heart of records like “C.R.E.A.M” and “Can It Be All So Simple,” but the documentary helps drill into the specificities behind songs that ended up becoming universal. While at times throughout the documentary RZA can get a bit lofty and self-aggrandizing in relaying his particular vision for the group, Jenkins does an admirable job of explaining the hunger they showed in their dogged pursuit to bring the Wu-Tang Clan mantra to life—the kind of survivor’s mentality they readily embrace to this day. In part 1 of the film, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates appears as a talking head to explain the “economic prison” of the projects and how part of the appeal of the Wu was just how specifically that feeling was conveyed in their music, allowing people from the projects to feel seen. The documentary establishes itself as a testament to both Wu-Tang’s point of view and skill. They were smart, insightful, hyperactive, and soulful; they conveyed some of the most traumatic aspects of being black and poor in America in an unflinching manner without ever losing their humor or spirit.
By the time the documentary gets into the group’s actual domination of the charts and the world, you feel the heaviness and beauty of that achievement. A great moment in the second episode is the group’s television debut on the Arsenio Hall Show, where they perform “C.R.E.A.M.,” throwing cash around the stage. Their performance is full of life and gleefully raucous in a way that betrays just how polished they were as performers. It’s immediately clear in that performance that they were going to be huge. Still, at the time, U-God’s son had recently been hit by a stray bullet that left him paralyzed for a period before going through a long, extended rehabilitation to learn to walk again. Even as the Wu-Tang were finally making it, the grim reality of their socio-economic status was still affecting their livelihood in horrific ways.
But the same unwieldy energy and alchemic mix of personalities that brought them together was also what became the group’s undoing. Like the story of most great American bands, the question of how money should be spread as the individual members bought into their own hype fractured whatever harmony they had achieved. Perhaps because it’s such a typical story, or because it’s not as fun of a subject, the documentary loses much of its power by part four, when it becomes about the tensions within the group and the incredibly misguided Once Upon a Time in Shaolin art project, which was sold for $2 million to cartoon villain Martin Shkreli. That entire episode could maybe be worthy of its own documentary, but as the epilogue Of Mics and Men, it sort of drags down what is otherwise a fascinating series.
That Of Mics And Men would follow the blueprint of the best Wu-Tang records by openly tackling the sociopolitical issues of black life in poor areas with such time and effort is a welcome surprise that adds a new perspective to the growing field of legacy music documentaries. The hope of Wu-Tang, as a lifestyle, was as a mental unshackling from the traps that life has put black Americans in. The documentary offers up a bittersweet nostalgia, the tug of looking back on Wu-Tang’s youth but still showing wounds from those days of struggling to survive. That dissonance is powerful and the documentary is at its best when it grapples with that as much as their rise.