RZA is on the cusp of two professional milestones. This November, his legendary hip-hop group, the Wu-Tang Clan, will ring in its 25th anniversary with a series of Down Under concerts. And early next year, he will bring audiences his third film as a director, “Cut Throat City.”
Born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, the artist began releasing features six years ago. Rather than a career pivot, moviemaking represented coming full circle in the entertainment industry: the very first Wu-Tang album (“Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers”) took its name from the 1978 film “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” In it, a fugitive college student travels to a Shaolin temple to master kung-fu, plotting revenge on his tyrannical government. During “RZA: Movies, Music, and Martial Arts” — his recent Hall H talk at San Diego Comic-Con — RZA recalled why Liu Chia-liang’s epic resonated for him and his bandmates.
“Being black in America — especially as I was growing up — the feeling of oppression, the feeling of being outcast, the feeling of not having a voice was part of my life,” said the Brooklyn native. “I didn’t learn black history in school, I had to go find Malcolm X books.”
In the late ’90s, while writing music, producing records, and touring stadiums, RZA also worked on a blaxploitation film that shared a name with his sometimes-alias, “Bobby Digital.” The movie was never released, but he later shadowed Quentin Tarantino on the sets of the “Kill Bill” films and “Death Proof” (He scored “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” and RZA has composed for films like “Blade: Trinity” and 2017 Sundance Special Jury Prize winner “Roxanne Roxanne.”) “Death Proof” co-starred Eli Roth, with whom RZA wrote the screenplay for his directorial debut, Universal Pictures’ “The Man with the Iron Fists.”
The 2012 film came with a “presented by Quentin Tarantino” credit. In a recent interview, RZA told IndieWire that Tarantino “came to my set, and patted me on the back and was like, ‘The student has now become a master. Do your thing.’” The long editing process caused RZA to eventually relinquish an acting role in “Django Unchained.”
“I took on a very ambitious first movie,” said RZA. “I probably had a staff of 400 people and a cast of 30 people,” including Russell Crowe, Rick Yune, Lucy Liu, and himself. Budgeted at approximately $20 million, “The Man with The Iron Fists” earned a little less than that at the combined domestic and international box offices. Lionsgate distributed his follow-up, “Love Beats Rhymes,” bringing it to select theaters and video-on-demand last December. Azealia Banks stars as an aspiring rapper, and the cast includes “BlacKkKlansman” breakout John David Washington.
“Cut Throat City” is first screenplay from Paul Cuschieri; he and RZA were paired by RZA’s agent, Cameron Mitchell. The feature was inspired by a news article Cuschieri read about a group of young, male Hurricane Katrina survivors who began robbing truck stop casinos. RZA said the script spent five years being passed around Hollywood and in early 2017, “a good team of really young, energetic producers” — led by Sean Lydiard (“Wakefield”) decided “they really wanted to see this come to life.”
“This is a story about four men who are faced with desperate situations [and] make a choice to go down the wrong path,” said RZA. “Dope” and “The Get Down” alum Shameik Moore plays newlywed Blink, a graphic novelist, college student, and young father. Denzel Whitaker — last seen in “Black Panther” — portrays a saxophonist named Andre, while Keean Johnson’s Junior wants to open a kennel and raise pitbulls. When the film opens, Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) is the only one with criminal ties.
Co-stars include Wesley Snipes as Blink’s long-absent father, Kat Graham as Blink’s wife Demyra, and Terrence Howard as The Saint, a man who RZA described as an older version of Howard’s “not to be reckoned with” alter-ego in “Hustle & Flow.” RZA’s contributions to the script included changing a law enforcement character who specializes in burglaries from a man to a woman. “The intuition of a woman sometimes sees deeper than the surface of what the problem is,” he said, so the switch “add[s] another layer of compassion to the conflict that these characters were facing.”
Filmed in New Orlean’s 9th Ward — where a local sign reading “CTC” for “cross the canal” sparked the widespread “cut throat city” moniker — the film is in its final stages of post. “We shot right where the levees broke, so you could see the damage that Katrina did” 13 years ago, said Shipp Jr. at Comic-Con, seated alongside RZA, Moore, Snipes, Whitake, Johnson, Graham, plus their scene partner and reigning UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.
“It’s really not cleaned up.” Graham added, “There’s parts of the area where there’s still not running water, there’s still no electricity … In a way, we’re the voices they don’t have.”
Of course, the entertainment business is in the midst of its own campaign for representation. “The black community has for a long time been a part of the Hollywood community, and of course we would love to have a more proportionate ratio of films that tell our stories,” said RZA, citing past examples from stars Will Smith, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Lena Horne, and Dorothy Dandrige, plus directors Spike Lee, John Singleton, Anton Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, and Jordan Peele. “Same thing for female leads, same thing for Asian leads. The Asian community has been a strong supporter of a lot of films, the Mexican community. I go to movies all the time, and I just see a beautiful, diverse crowd of people with their popcorn, taking that escapism and enjoying the movies. And it does feel good when you look up there and you see somebody else of your own — I guess they would call it ‘ethnic group.'”
Talking about African-Americans specifically, RZA continued, “We would love to have an easier path to creating art. I know sometimes we feel like we get short [shrift]” due to the “myth that internationally, black films or black casts don’t resonate.” He believes $1.3 billion in “Black Panther” box office receipts “broke that stereotype,” as well as Wu-Tang Clan’s own recent ticket sales.
“We sold out the Sydney Opera House for four nights,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of brothers over there.”
Well Go USA Entertainment will release “Cut Throat City” in 2019. Watch the trailer below.