“Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” a new series on Hulu assaying the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan as recollected by one of its members, joins a recent wave of art in which the subjects tell high-gloss versions of their own stories.
Last year, “Bohemian Rhapsody” — a hagiographic look at the rise of the band Queen, made with the enthusiastic assent and guidance of that group’s surviving members, became an Oscar-winning smash hit. It was followed this summer by “Rocketman,” a big-budget retelling of Elton John’s life story in which John, too, participated. Both versions were told redemptively, with a certain glowing admiration for both the musicianship of their subjects and other, loftier qualities (in “Rhapsody,” the power of camaraderie; in “Rocketman,” the devotion to self-improvement). In 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” about the rap group N.W.A., the involvement was yet more literal: Not merely did the rappers in question produce the film, but Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., played his own father.
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All of which makes “Wu-Tang,” created and co-written by rapper the RZA, both of its moment and, for some, perhaps better eyed with caution. After all, the most interesting stories tend to be told by people with an outside perspective. But “Wu-Tang” feels less like a celebration of self and more like a carefully, thoughtfully told memoir.
The RZA — known, in the show’s pre-fame timeline, as Bobby Diggs — is played by Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”), in yet another fine and sensitive performance. Diggs, surrounded both by crack and crime and by the unfulfilled promise of his peers in 1990s New York, seeks to rap his way out, to use his ear and his insight to make a path to fame and bring friends with him. It’s a fight waged against both the forces holding Diggs and his peers down and against their own occasional impulse to give up the fight. Unlike in other works like it, Wu-Tang’s eventual success, here, never feels inevitable; life is realistically drawn enough to make their triumph feel like the stroke of luck and genius that it was, not like a foregone conclusion.
The series is clear-eyed about its setting, depicting its characters as potentially great but stymied by the lack of resources coming their way; its view on its milieu is complicated by real love for the city even despite the inequality that thrives there. (In this way, it’s not unlike “When They See Us,” another limited series from this summer set at around the same historical moment in New York.) “Wu-Tang” has flashes of sharp imagination — sequences that are animated, or styled like an early-nineties video game. But what it does best is depict street-level life with unflashy, unremarkable plainness, showing us New York as the man who’d become the RZA saw it. Its New York is a place without airs but a place that pulsates with music, love, and vivid life underneath a tough exterior. It’s a place you’ll be glad you visited, and one whose inspiration of a now-legendary group of artists comes as no surprise.
‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga.’ Hulu. Sept. 4. Ten episodes (four screened for review).
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Shameik Moore, Dave East, Siddiq Saunderson, Marcus Callender, Julian Elijah Martinez, Zolee Griggs, Erika Alexander, TJ Atoms, Johnell Young
Executive Producers: Alex Tse, The RZA, Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo