From being inspired by the T-Birds in Grease to the teachings of Islam to the secret back story of the Statue of Liberty (she’s a black woman), the Wu-Tang Clan met their storytelling match in filmmaker Sacha Jenkins.
The director has been a personal fan of the Wu-Tang Clan and has consistently pushed the group’s message into the mainstream. He wrote the iconic group’s first ever cover story in indie hip-hop newspaper Beat Down in 1992. “Their authenticity is undeniable,” said Jenkins, a native New Yorker who is known for his documentaries Fresh Dressed (about hip-hop fashion), Word is Bond (about hip-hop lyrics), and Burn Motherfucker Burn (about the 1992 Los Angeles uprising after the beating of Rodney King).
Jenkins premiered his documentary series, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The docuseries, which will air on Showtime in four episodes this spring, is centered around the reunion of the Staten Island-born crew celebrating the 25th anniversary of their seminal album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and includes never-before-seen, intimate interviews with members getting personal, emotional and political.
The docuseries begins with the members reuniting for their album’s anniversary after admitting to hardly any interaction outside of performances. The group sits front and center watching old interviews and clips from the past 20 years of them exploring their neighborhood and performing, intercut with talking head interviews discussing the rise of hip-hop in ‘90s New York. Episode two shifts from hip-hop backstory to the creation of the album and political state of racism and classism in New York at a time that heavily influenced their lyrics and the public perception of the group.
“I want viewers to come away knowing that the Wu-Tang success story is an amazing, important American success story. While their experiences might be different from someone in the suburbs, there are universal themes inside their struggles and success that everyone can relate to,” Jenkins said the day of the premiere. To Jenkins, if there’s any subject that deserves the cable docuseries treatment, it’s Wu-Tang. “If the Grateful Dead can have like a six-part documentary, why can’t Wu-Tang have a four-part documentary?”
How did your longstanding relationship with Wu-Tang impact telling this story?
Sacha Jenkins: There are nuances that are very important to understand. People around the world love Wu-Tang. But I’ve always wondered, do you really understand what these guys are talking about? When we first put them on the cover [of Beat Down] back then, we didn’t have any expectations. We were an underground zine. We liked them. We thought they were great, but we didn’t think they were going to be what they became.
Was everyone on board with divulging a lot of personal subject matter?
Jenkins: What’s unique about this film is that you rarely see black men be vulnerable and very honest about experiences that are extreme, and often challenging manhood. A lot of us are in these situations in the inner city where we feel like we need to be tough; often times we have to be tough. Talking about your pain and sorrow is not something that’s celebrated. So the fact that these guys were so honest and open about their life stories is what’s going to make the crucial difference here with this film.
Who do you see as the target of the documentary?
Jenkins: I like to make films as a native. The people who come from where I come from, they can watch that movie and say, “Hey you know what, that’s what it is. That’s what it’s about. That’s who we are.” At the same time, if you’re not where I’m from, you can watch it and feel like you actually learned something.
In this country, you have something called Black History Month and in that month, you celebrate your history. But the problem is, when you have massive issues with law enforcement, and you have black kids getting shot all around America, people get nervous because people are talking about black lives matter, it’s like no—these are American lives. If we started to look at black culture as American culture and not just African-American culture then maybe things would be different in this country.
With Wu-Tang, so many young executives in the film and television industry grew up with Wu-Tang. Forty-two-year-old white executives are like, “I went to high school. This is my music.” But what does that say? It says that rock ’n’ roll is no longer the dominant sound and kids, American kids, not just white kids, not just black kids, not just brown kids, American kids—hip-hop is their music. So I felt like no one fully understood where they were coming from unless you were from there. Their music has brought people together and has educated people in ways that are powerful and important.
Rock ’n’ roll is no longer the dominant sound and not just white kids, not just black kids, not just brown kids, American kids—hip-hop is their music.
Aside from Wu-Tang’s music, is this film a vessel into helping people see everyone as American and just recognize the political background of it?
Jenkins: It’s recognizing that there are differences and because of society, and how society affects particular people, here are the differences, but I think pain, suffering, sorrow and the desire to change your situation, change your environment—that’s universal. Music is more than just entertainment; at least for me. It’s communication, it’s language, it’s expression, it is hope, it is sorrow. It’s all these things rolled up in one. Wu-Tang when they came out, it’s like their shit wasn’t happy, but so many people get so much joy from it, and I wanted people to better understand that.
Some of the more recent news about Wu-Tang was around pharma bro Martin Shkreli buying the one copy of the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album for two million. How do you feel about that?
Jenkins: When you go to the very beginning of who Wu-Tang were, and are, and where they came from, and how it wound up in the clutches of this weirdo, it’s almost like out of a Spider-Man movie or something. To me, that speaks to—even a weirdo like Shkreli understands the value and the authenticity. It was an antenna for him. It was a lightning rod for attention, that’s what he wanted. He wanted attention and guess what—he got it.
What do you want to say to Wu-Tang fans who may not fully understand the subject matter of the music?
Jenkins: Sometimes, I don’t understand what you people get out of this shit [gangster rap] because do you really understand what’s being said? I’m not saying that the music shouldn’t be made. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t enjoy the music. I’m saying that if you’re going to listen to this shit and enjoy it, fucking understand what’s being talked about. I feel that was my goal of the film.
I’m not saying, “OK, now that you know there’s so much sorrow in the Wu-Tang Clan, don’t listen to it. I’m white, I can’t listen to Wu-Tang.” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying these are American artists and the environment that they come from is not in Botswana—it’s America; and it’s fucked up America.