In 1937, John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, a novella about two men searching for an opportunity during the Great Depression and ultimately growing and finding themselves along the way. Despite the controversy surrounding the book (namely language and other adult themes), Of Mice and Men went on to become a literary classic that has influenced millions around the world for the greater part of a century.
In 2019, director Sacha Jenkins set out to tell a similar story about the coming-of-age struggles of a group of young men as they attempted to achieve an almost impossible dream while navigating seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Enter the Wu.
Premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Jenkins’ indie episodic, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, tells the story of how the aspiring group of artists (RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Cappadonna and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard) from Staten Island and Brooklyn turned to hip hop as a means of escape from the poverty, violence, and depression of their neighborhoods.
While the Wu-Tang Clan’s long and illustrious musical career has been documented by The Source and other major media outlets since the mid-’90s, Of Mics and Men intersperses intimate interviews with previously unseen footage (both from the members’ personal collections as well as unused footage from other media companies such as MTV and yes, a local public access show from the early 90’s), seamlessly weaving a story that humanizes the rags-to-riches come up of the group that changed hip hop forever.
At first glance, it might seem like Of Mics and Men could be just another hip hop documentary with interviews and footage laid over a catchy soundtrack- the type that holds the audience’s attention just enough to keep them from checking their phones.
But it’s not. It’s so much more.
A local legend, universal appeal, and a cultural classic
Jenkins and his production team have managed to accomplish what few before them have by creating an authentic classic film that uses storytelling and the power of hip hop to transcend geographic, racial, social, economic, and other demographic boundaries.
“To me, the music is an important part of the film, but to me it’s all the other things that really matters,” said Jenkins as he explained that the film was an ‘invitation’ to understand where the group’s members came from. “It’s easy to love Wu-Tang, but to really appreciate the music and where they’re coming from is to appreciate and understand where they came from- and that was my goal with this film- to bring people to where they came from [the film is largely shot in Staten Island] and to give you a sense of what they overcame to get to the place that they are today.”
Another striking similarity between the classic novel and the similarly-named film is that despite being specific to a particular time, place, and experience, both manage to resonate with a larger audience- a feat that few works of art can successfully accomplish.
Explaining the film’s universal appeal, executive producer Peter Bittenbender draws a comparison between the classic literary work and the movie stating: “There are definitely parallels as far as the trials and tribulations that you have to overcome to find success.”
“I think that the spirit of our experience is universal,” stated RZA. “So many people feel the loss that we’ve felt in our lives, the struggle that we’ve felt in our lives, the joy. So many people go through that. We were young men that were able to record it, put it down with some good beats, and get that energy out and I think when people hear it, they relate to the energy. One of my greatest things was when I went to France and I saw the French audience just rocking with us. They didn’t speak the language, but it’s like electricity- everybody feels electricity.
“Their honesty, that’s what people are drawn to,” said Jenkins. “Even though you might not understand exactly what they’re talking about, their honesty is undeniable.”
The Source as a constant source of support
During the film’s red carpet premiere, members of the group took time to reflect on their past, present, and future, noting that The Source has been an integral part of their musical career.
As for their favorite Source moments, U-God fondly remembered some of The Source’s iconic staples. “The Source awards, those were definitely good- and obviously the covers and all the writeups,” he said, with Masta Killa, RZA, and Ghostface Killah also noting the magazine’s decades-long influence.
“The Source has a history of being a part of our hip hop culture,” summarized Masta Killa.
(Wu-Tang Clan graced the cover of The Source’s ‘Power 30’ issue in January of 2001.)
A legend lives on, even in death
While the majority of the founding members were present for the premiere and took part in the movie’s interviews, there remained a void due to the untimely death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, one of the group’s founding members.
“If Ol’ Dirty Bastard was alive….listen, his energy was over the top. I haven’t seen fans actually pass out since he’s been gone. He brought the most energy,” stated Masta Killa, laughing.
“I think things would be different,” agreed RZA. “I’m so proud that Masta Killa, Sacha Jenkins, and [executive producer] Peter Scalettar and the whole team has put together a great film for us, but if ODB was here, we probably would have celebrated ten years ahead. He had such great energy.”
Despite the legendary rapper’s notable absence, the film did an excellent job of capturing his spirit through photos and videos as well as interviews with his family members, who fondly remembered a young man with an unbreakable spirit who wasn’t afraid to break barriers.
Wu Tang’s invitation to the world
While it remains to be seen what kind of barriers (or records) will be broken when the film debuts on Showtime as a four-part series in May, one thing is for certain- the artists and production team are all in agreement that the purpose of Of Mics and Men is to not just serve as a biopic, but to bring people together.
Reiterating that the movie was not meant to necessarily serve as a ‘challenge,’ but as an invitation, Jenkins said that his goal is to invite viewers in to see where the characters are coming from.
“I think that’s a big problem in this country. We’re all separate- we’re not on the same page. Wu-Tang brings people together,” said Jenkins.
Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the diverse audience at the premiere, the invitation has been accepted.
Wu-Tang: Of Mics and Men premieres on Showtime in May of 2019.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)
Production company: Mass Appeal
Producers: Robert Diggs, Clifford Smith, Gary Grice, Lamont Hawkins, Corey Woods, Darryl Hill, Elgin Turner, Dennis Coles, Jason Hunter, Icelene Jones, Cary Graber
Archival producers: Amilca Palmer, Vanessa Maruskin
Director: Sacha Jenkins
Executive producers: Peter J. Scalettar, Peter Bittenbender, Chris Gary
Lead editor: Paul Greenhouse
Editors: James Lester, Sean Frechette