The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine is an enjoyable three hours that doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know about the titular rapper — including that, for 6ix9ine, whose government name is Daniel Hernandez, rapping is secondary to the wrapping it comes in. Known for his rainbow hair, tattooed face, and aggro attitude,Hernandez is more personal-branding visionary than hip-hop talent, and that vision is part of what got him sent to prison on a raft of RICO charges, thanks to what you might call his "immersive approach" to membership in the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods.
It's also why director Karam Gill (history of hip-hop jewelry doc Ice Cold) is contemplating a guy who might seem to many viewers like a garden-variety YouTube pest — in the second documentary on Hernandez in three months. (Hulu's take, '69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez, dropped in November and features many of the same interviewees.) What does the ascent of Hernandez, and his transformation from Danny the needy wunderkind to 6ix9ine the terror, tell us — about the dark side of going viral, about hip-hop personas, or about villains real and fictional?
This is a lot to take on in a three-hour limited series, and Supervillain is very effective in its way; I was glued to my seat for the first hour. Still, it's got some structural issues. For one thing, the first set of charges Hernandez faced — "use of a child in a sexual performance," a felony; apparently Hernandez filmed a 13-year-old performing oral sex on a third party (among other things) and posted it to Instagram — isn't introduced until almost exactly halfway through the three-part series. For another, the section on the more familiar charges involving RICO predicates, prison gangs, and brawls at LAX airport feels a bit rushed. Gill and his interviewees would rather dwell on the snitching aspect of the case, the one that saw Hernandez get only eight months and time served while the (all Black, not for nothing) associates he ratted on got years. (Hernandez, released with an ankle monitor last spring due to coronavirus concerns, went right back to work.)
Also buried fairly deep in the runtime is the revelation that Hernandez put hands on Sara Molina — the mother of his child — an all the more egregious choice given how prominent Molina is in the narrative, and how sympathetic a portrayal of Hernandez's early days her memories help to build.
Perhaps it's not fair to hold Supervillain to the case timeline expectations of a traditional true crime doc. Supervillain's larger focus is on image-making in hip-hop and what happens when social media, the need for gangster "authenticity," and the Trumpian concept that there's no such thing as negative attention combine (and combust). In fact, the dearth of law-enforcement talking-head interviews is rather refreshing. But viewers who go into the docuseries expecting a more conventional approach may not enjoy the ways Gill chooses to illustrate that focus.
Gill's main method is a runner on the "elements" that go into constructing a supervillain, hung on a framework of the periodic table. Here, the "chemicals" are factors like trauma, appearance, mission, and weaponry, all animated by Imaginary Forces and narrated by Giancarlo Esposito, himself the originator of a legendary TV supervillain, Gus Fring of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I can see how some may find it corny, but thanks to Hernandez's brightly colored "brand elements," you can't take your eyes off it; it's like watching candy being made (albeit candy that's been poisoned).
I can't dismiss the idea that that too comes back to Gill's central thesis... that all the aspects of a supervillain enumerated by the docuseries are also used by the docuseries, to keep our attention. In the words of Hernandez himself, it's "like a fetish… they don't like something but they can't stop watching it."
Supervillain's pacing is good, and Gill gets great interviews from people around Hernandez, and from cultural commentators with great insight into the Nine Trey world, and how hip-hop is packaged. Some of the interviewees almost beg for another documentary just about them, like record-label founder and former Nine Trey associate Seqo Billy; Billy Ado, whose rapid-fire storytelling charisma is off the charts; and Rolling Stone senior editor Brendan Klinkenberg, whose impatience with Hernandez's story is evident but who has good insights into how the mainstream music press contends with a ruthless self-promoter like Hernandez, who doesn't actually need the mainstream to leverage his bad behavior into cash and attention.
As a documentary about a rapper who, as more than one commentator notes, didn't really know or listen to rap, maybe Supervillain could have done more with ideas about hip-hop personas, and how hip-hop artists of color so often get punished for the worlds they create for/with those personas. Supervillain refers repeatedly to the "hip-hop police" squad within NYPD, and there's an educational montage of the roles various hip-hop legends have taken on, but Gill doesn't get too deep into the free-speech aspects of cases like 6ix9ine's, and maybe that's part of the series' point — that, for guys like Hernandez and the Jokers and Vaders they may model themselves on, there is no "deeper," no "below the surface." The surface is all that counts. That idea is one Supervillain does a lot with, in an entertaining way that got me turning the series over in my mind after I'd finished it — and that's something else supervillains do.
Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine premieres on Showtime February 21st at 10:00 PM ET.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.