Rapper/producer/director RZA didn’t set out to make a movie that speaks to the recent social injustices that have triggered protests throughout the country. But his new film, Cut Throat City
, a movie about four boyhood friends who return to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to find no jobs and a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that’s unwilling to help, certainly addresses our troubled times.
It opens area-wide on Friday.
RZA, the sonic architect behind the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, directed his first feature film, The Man with the Iron Fists
, nearly a decade ago and has regularly dabbled in film over the course of his lengthy career. RZA scored Kill Bill: Volume 1
and Kill Bill: Volume 2
and composed the score to Jim Jarmusch's
heady Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
He says he’s come a long way since then.
“[The Man with the Iron Fists
] was like my college graduation paper because I studied with [writer-director] Quentin Tarantino for about six years,” RZA says in a recent phone interview. “And then Love Beats Rhymes
was like my first job because I didn’t write that movie. It was a script I was given, but I took it all the way to release. [Cut Throat City
] is my creed. I got my feet in the concrete now. If I was musician, I would be ready to play Carnegie Hall. That’s how I feel as a director now.”
Even as the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, which took place nearly 15 years ago, seem to have faded from the collective memory, Cut Throat City
comes off as particularly relevant.
“Not intentionally but unintentionally it does relate [to current issues],” says RZA. “At the end of the day, some communities are hit harder [when tragedy strikes]. During the pandemic, once again, those are the people suffering the most. How is that possible? It’s the black community first and foremost. It’s the poverty community. It’s the people we have forgotten about. That’s how the black community is. We’re ignored. The highway drives over us. That part of [the film] is unintentionally on time. FEMA is failing to do the right thing. Here we are again in the same scenario.”
He says he identifies with how the Black Lives Matter movement aims to call intention to the disparity that exists between white and black communities.
“The thing about the Black Lives matter protest is the argument that FEMA and the sheriff’s department and the police department and Congress and even the President all receive a salary based on our tax dollars,” he says. “If you get a check on Friday, you got to take some of that check and send it somewhere else. As a result, we need to have good schools and good roads and some people who are going to come and protect you when times are bad. When that doesn’t show up, it means you’re paying for bad service. It’s like when you go to Burger King and order a burger and they give you a biscuit. It's like, 'C’mon, man. I’m paying for this service. You’re not doing me a favor here.'”
In RZA’s film, the four boyfriend friends (capably portrayed by Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker) become so desperate that they’re willing to commit a crime. A socially aware cop (Eiza González) tries to stop them before they make a fatal mistake.
“They’re not bums looking for a handout,” says RZA of the film's protagonists. “They’re working people that have been devastated by this national disaster. We’re coming for assistance. You can see that in the pandemic and the money not going to the people who need it.”
The drama also features a compelling performance by rapper T.I., who plays the local gangster that the boys turn to when FEMA lets them down.
“I’ve been a fan of T.I.,” says RZA. “He has some great songs that are in my catalog. I watched him on the screen, but I might have slept a little bit on how much weight he carries. This film, to me, shows it. He gave it an A-list shot. He killed it. Everyone knows T.I. They know him from music. But everyone in the crew didn’t expect him to fall into that character like he did. He really became who that guy was."
In keeping with the movie’s strong message about economic inequality, the film’s producers, Well Go USA and Patriot Pictures, will donate a portion of proceeds to lowernine.org
, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of New Orleans’ historic Lower Ninth Ward.
Ultimately, RZA says the grim movie offers hope for the possibility of change.
“It’s a movie about observation,” he says. “You can watch the corruption in it, or you can watch it for someone like Eiza González’ character, who has a lot of empathy. That’s what we’re asking for — empathy for our situation."
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