Sacha Jenkins had an unenviable task in making Of Mics & Men: trying to get all the surviving members of the Wu-Tang Clan together in one spot. That’s an achievement that no concert promoter nor even the managers of the group’s individual members have been able to pull off for years.
But for a few glorious hours, Jenkins got the whole Clan—RZA, Genius, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Cappadonna, Masta Killa and U-God—into a movie theater to watch clips from their 25 years working with and against each other, and to reflect on their shared history. That the only argument we see them get into in this four-part documentary, airing on Showtime starting tonight, is about how they decided on the name of the group is miraculous.
The archival footage and individual interviews that Jenkins conducts with the members of the Clan tell a different story. A messy tale of a group of friends that joined forces to escape the crushing conditions of their Staten Island home through hip-hop, reached uncommon levels of success, and spent the next two decades arguing over money and their legacy.
That theme threatens to weigh down the last two episodes of this limited series. The first two spend ample amounts of time telling the origin story of this group of hip-hop superheroes and the explosion of creativity that resulted in their earthshaking debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and the various solo efforts that quickly followed. It’s a familiar enough story, but told with the same scratchy, crackly energy of RZA’s production work. The tension of real life, and the realities of being Black men in America, are never far away.
In an archival interview with Raekwon around the time of his debut solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the cameras catch not only the rapper and his team being harrassed by the police, but also he, RZA and a gaggle of youngsters barely reacting when gunshots ring out. The other members of the group speak on their own battles in new interviews: Method Man’s spending part of his childhood in a battered women’s shelter; U-God’s young son taking a stray bullet in the back, forcing him to relearn how to walk; Ghostface caring for his siblings stricken with muscular dystrophy.
The last two hours of Mics sparks with static and tension. And the note that keeps getting struck again and again is to do with money. The cash that DJ and graphic designer Mathematics left on the table when he sold his design of the now famous Wu-Tang logo to RZA for $400. The obscene $2 million that Martin Shkreli paid for the only copy of the infamous Once Upon A Time In Shaolin album. The paper that Ol’ Dirty Bastard was missing out on when RZA refused to release him from his Wu-Tang contract. All the receipts are there and no one in the group seems at all satisfied with how things ended up. Even RZA, the acknowledged architect of the Wu-Tang sound and vision who has earned more than any of them by keeping the brand alive, laments how the allure of money poisoned the relationships between these men.
That’s what makes those scenes in the movie theater, and the business meeting that Jenkins got on camera to apparently square away the publishing for the Wu’s music, so impressive. On their own, they snipe and air out dirty laundry, with Ghostface in particular spilling a good amount of tea regarding the Shkreli/Shaolin situation. But when they do find themselves all together in the same room, it all gets set aside for the common cause of their collective good. They can share tears and praise for their fallen brother O.D.B. They can remind one another about being able to pull their families out of poverty and how they can be there for their children in a way that their own fathers were not. And they and Jenkins can remind the world just how important the Wu-Tang Clan was, and still is, for hip-hop.