There’s a scene near the beginning of the final episode of Of Mics and Men, Showtime’s four-part docuseries on Wu-Tang Clan premiering Friday night, that finds the crew — older, wiser, calmer — sitting around a large table enjoying a group meal. For the past three episodes, we’ve seen the hip-hop collective go from playing local talent shows and self-distributing white labels to becoming music business pioneers and global superstars, all while nearly killing each other over money, ego and fame. But now RZA is seated, naturally, at the head of the table, waxing to the group about the power of reflection.
“It’s a lesson that Krishna taught,” he says. “He said, ‘Contemplation — meaning reflecting on your past — is better than praying.’”
Even for the perpetually introspective rapper/producer/Wu mastermind, it’s been an especially poignant time to look back. Last November was the 25th anniversary of the group’s landmark debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), an album rap fans of a certain age will have no problem telling you changed everything. But even for someone who’s been a public figure for more than half his life, the 49-year-old admits the group, behind the scenes, often moved in silence.
“Wu-Tang still treat a lot of people like the FBI. We kept it tight, yo,” he tells Rolling Stone. But now, he and the rest of the group were finally ready to open up to someone about their often-fractious past.
Enter Sacha Jenkins, a veteran hip-hop journalist turned filmmaker whose past movies — 2015’s Fresh Dressed and 2018’s Word Is Bond — delved into the genre’s sartorial and lyrical side, respectively. “[RZA] was very frank,” Jenkins says. “He said, ‘Look, I’ve got all kinds of people interested in doing this.’ And I said, ‘Any big-name production company or director or producer in Hollywood will do a fine Wu-Tang series. But they’re not going to do what the fuck I’m going to do.’
“Hip-hop is an American art form and there are things inside of American art forms that all Americans can relate to,” Jenkins adds. “But as someone who is native to the experience and a product of hip-hop [and] also happens to be a black male coming up in New York City during a very turbulent time between crack, police and God knows whatever else, I’m in a unique position to understand and see things that other people might not.”
“Most people don’t know the story from living it and he lived hip-hop,” RZA says of Jenkins. “It took me about three weeks [to agree]. I was reluctant, but I let go of all fears and I put it in the hands of the director.”
Jenkins deftly contextualizes Of Mics and Men against the backdrop of the Staten Island and Brooklyn ghettos that informed the Clan’s upbringing, showing both police harassment of members and civilian murders by the police that sparked widespread protests. But perhaps more striking for Wu fans is the level of introspection Jenkins teases out among some of the group’s most reticent members. (One particularly emotional scene involves Ghostface Killah discussing his battle with depression while taking care of two younger brothers with muscular dystrophy.) “It’s those moments that I want people to understand,” says Jenkins. “Many people coming from where folks like they came from, and where I came from, [are] suffering from PTSD.”
“There are things we didn’t even know about each other recorded into the doc in front of us,” RZA says, referencing a scene where Method Man also admits to bouts of depression early in his life. “Because we all look at each other as heroes as well as strength. We don’t see the weakness in each other. But the symbol of yin and yang is the exact sign for us to understand, that there’s a dot of yin in that yang. And there’s a dot of yang in that yin, yo. That dot is symbolic of, ‘Yo, there’s a weak point.’ This documentary is the honest display of strong men showing you that there’s a vulnerable weak point in life.”
Then there’s the verbal fights. Many, many fights, recorded by the group themselves at various stages in their career that offer a fascinating, voyeuristic look into the inner machinations of the music industry, the often-tenuous egos of our creative idols and the result of nine men (and their crew) making millions of dollars in a short amount of time. You almost feel guilty watching these amateur-shot home movies, like you just walked into an argument among random people and shouldn’t be there. It’s a testament to Jenkins’ filmmaking abilities that the arguments feel more like crucial development points within the group’s arc rather than tawdry, exploitative sideshows.
Tension simmers throughout the whole series, never moreso than when the group discuss Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a 2015 one-copy-only LP billed as a Wu-Tang album. In the film, many of the members say they were only asked to contribute verses, but were not told what it was for. (Making matters worse, the sole buyer was universally hated pharma troll Martin Shkreli.) Watching the members brutally excoriate the album one after another to RZA’s face as the camera stays focused on the sunglasses-clad producer is excruciating, but one of the realest moments captured in hip-hop cinema.
Other times, the arguments seem borderline jovial, like watching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau bicker in Grumpy Old Men. Of Mics and Men may stand as the most Rashomon-like music doc in years, as memories get fuzzier and the members humorously disagree on the most basic facts like who came up with the name “Wu-Tang Clan.” It’s a natural rapport formed by 25 or more years of going to war together. “Part of the fun was hearing different stories about the same thing happening. It’s all based on who you want to believe that day, but the end result is still the same,” Jenkins says. “They are a self-made family and every family — even successful ones — have issues. So, why would these guys be any different?”
Jenkins’ goal, above all, is to elevate hip-hop documentaries to “the same level of class that a Neil Young might get” and bring the genre into greater focus among a more general audience.
“I named the film Of Mics and Men because the book Of Mice and Men is a quote-unquote ‘American classic.’ Well, guess what? The Wu-Tang Clan too are an American classic,” he says. “And all of the things that they’ve endured and have lived through, and have overcome, is a truly American story. And America needs to learn and accept and embrace the ugliness of America, and embrace the beauty that has always come out of black art, and black artists, as a reflection of and a reaction to that ugliness that we’ve had to face. And Wu-Tang epitomizes that on the highest level.”