"There's things you don't know about Wu": RZA on "American Saga" & his new post-Katrina heist film

The hip-hop legend appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss "Cut Throat City," survival in the U.S. & living the dream

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 21, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

RZA directing the film "Cut Throat City" (Well Go USA Entertainment)
RZA directing the film "Cut Throat City" (Well Go USA Entertainment)

Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city of New Orleans taking over 1,000 lives and causing an estimated $125 billion in damages. Slow and limited response to the disaster once again revealed the racism at the core of America. Since then, thousands of original New Orleans residents have been displaced as mass gentrification swept in and erased much of the rich history the city was known for. The city would never be the same. Many residents found homes in new places, but others loved New Orleans unconditionally and were willing to fight to stay home, even though home did not have much to offer them. 

Wu-Tang Clan founder, legendary producer, hip-hop star and director The RZA captures the plight of those New Orleans residents looking for space and trying to survive in their own town in his new film "Cut Throat City" (in theaters Aug. 21). In the film, a young artist torn between what's right and wrong as he is trying to follow a straight and narrow path, but is constantly rejected by the new New Orleans in a system that he sees committing crime after crime, while requiring him to do the right thing. "Cut Throat City" boasts an all-star cast including Shameik Moore, T.I., Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Eiza González, and Ethan Hawke. 

I recently got a chance to talk with RZA about the film on an episode of "Salon Talks, which you can watch here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the way Trump's terrible job of handling the pandemic mirrors Bush's massive failure with Hurricane Katrina, Season 2 of the hit Hulu series "Wu-Tang: An America Saga" and the advice he gave his daughter before she went out to protest for George Floyd.   

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

First, congrats on the film. How have you been holding up in quarantine?

It's been pretty challenging. I'm actually out in my office today. There's really two people here. I've been coming in like twice a week. I'm trying to re-assimilate back to some type of normal structure. This is unique times, bro. This is unpredictable. I always said Wu-Tang was really unpredictable. This is unpredictable right now.

It's crazy times. How has the pandemic affected you creatively? Have you been able to create during this time of everything being shut down?

Creatively it's been a blessing. To be total honest with you, I'm on fire. It's just like, you know, lyrics is spilling out, beats is spilling out. I got a writers' room. The crazy thing is my writers' room is now two Zoom sessions, yet we're knocking out screenplays and Season 2 of "American Saga." It's coming along well. The Wu brothers have been Zooming and giving interviews with writers. So creatively things have been moving I would say.

That's a blessing man. Some of us are able to create in these times. I'm a writer myself so just everything being shut down, it kind of makes it easy. Even though I like to live in the world, I get locked away and I get to do my job. What is it like rolling out a film during the pandemic?

Well the thing is, I did a PSA [several months ago] for New York City telling people to stay in their house, you know what I mean? We was trying to stop that curve, they say. I still believe that safety is the most primary important thing for all of us, in any capacity. Then there's the other side of the coin where some cities are open. Those cities that are open, they've got movie theaters. The communal experience of watching movies is gone, right? The industry is suffering. I've got a lot of friends who own independent theaters. The chains are suffering but the independent theaters, their doors are closing for real. Anything we can do to help.

To me, they was like, "Do you want to put your film out now?" It was a question to me. I had to answer that question. I was like, "Yeah, why not, let's go for it. Let's put our feet in the water." One, just for the community to understand that we're supporting the community. We're not going to be destroyed by this. You know what I mean? We're not saying that I want 120 people in a movie theater. We can still social distance ourselves in there and have hand sanitizers and wear masks. In the same way if you go to an outside restaurant or the way people are trying to figure out, like even in my building at the elevator there's like six feet markers where you got to stand before you get into the elevators. Six feet there to the other guy. So that formula has worked.

It's starting to happen for our country. Movie theaters are a big part of our country, a big part of our culture. I am looking forward to those doors reopening. It's challenging, bro, but I'm optimistic. I'm hoping the best for the community. It's all about what can we do to help the community.

So there are couple of cities that I love. Baltimore is one, obviously. That's where I'm from, that's where I live. New York is another one. New York is magical, but New Orleans. In New Orleans there's a vibe and a flavor and you really, really capture it in your film. Shout to the young talent you have in here, Shameik Moore, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Denzel Whitaker. Then we got some OG's in there like Wesley Snipes and T.I. and Terrence Howard. It's loaded. I know scripts come across your desks all day long. What made you choose to direct this film

Well the story itself, seeing young men who got a lot of aspirations in an underprivileged community yet trying to fight their way out. He's a college student kid. He's an artist. He should have a chance to go get a job and have his college education help pay for his life. But Hurricane Katrina strikes, and all those aspirations turn to desperation. That's my neighborhood, that's my neighborhood. There were so many of us who had better knowledge, better talent, better equipment, but opportunities was taken one way or another. When I read the script that's what I saw. I saw it being more of a story of young men losing their opportunity. Then they turn to the opportunity available. When I grew up it was street pharmaceuticals.

After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana being a state that has all these truck stop casinos, there were some articles about some young men from the hood was going around robbing those casinos, trying to put some food on their table.

Trying to eat.

Yeah, you know what I mean? I don't condone violence or crime. You know what I mean? But I condone survival. To me that's what those men are doing. They're trying to survive. Sometimes a left turn can take you right straight to hell.

I'm so glad you said that because people always condemn those of us that get caught up in the system, but they never want to judge the system that creates that reality. People don't wake up in the morning wanting to risk their lives or their freedoms. But people wake up in the morning hungry and they got to eat. If our country isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing to provide them things, then stuff happens. That's one of the most important elements of the film that I want to talk about a little bit, without giving too much away, is just the plight of Black people in New Orleans after Katrina. Can you speak to that and how the government handled it?

Some of us feel like that situation is upon us in a different form right now. When you see that the pandemic is proportionately hurting the Black community and there's more Blacks dying from it. Like how is that possible? They say, "Oh because they've got bad medical conditions, high blood pressure and all these other things." All those things come also from poverty. You don't get high blood pressure from eating healthy food, you get it from eating what you got to eat that's provided in your community. You don't get diabetes from eating healthy, you get diabetes because, yo, I'm a kid that grew up in the hood. You know what my dinner was sometimes? Kiddy candy.

Anyway, in this story, FEMA is an agency that's supposed to come and help when disaster strikes. When they came to New Orleans, we all know the history after Katrina, and even in Puerto Rico, they didn't do what they were supposed to do. They didn't help the community that needed it the most. People saying right now with these little stimulus checks that are supposed to be going out to people right now during the pandemic, these big corporations are taking millions and millions of dollars. Whereas the average person can't even get $1,200. So that story still exists. That was 2005. We're coming upon the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That's in a couple weeks, bro. This movie will be in the theaters during that 15th anniversary. Hopefully we're reminded that look, when the government has the power to help and don't use it, things like this is going to happen.

Our story looks upon a family, and that's just one family out of many families that's facing the same thing. If you see what one family does, if you see what one family is going through, hopefully on a micro level you're going to understand that that's happening on a macro level as well. Just like when I heard how many people was passing away in New York from corona, and it was a lot of Blacks dying, I'm like that don't sound right, it sounds crazy. But then Detroit the same thing. You see what I mean? So it's like, okay, it ain't this micro; it's macro. The solution has to be macro. Look, the film definitely gives you some political context and hits you with some questions. I think Ethan Hawke's character gives you a big question about the conspiracy about it all.

I think what Wesley's Snipes' character does, I think as a father, is just remind us. I think the line he says, it's in the trailer, but he says it to Blake, he says "Look, you a Black kid from the Lower 9th. What did you expect?" And Blake is like, no, he expects more. He's not going to accept the condemnation off the top in the same that none of us do. I didn't accept it. When I read this script and I was at that part I was like, yeah, that's right. Just because I'm a high school dropout doesn't mean that I'm uneducated. You know what I mean? The conditions of school . . .  I'm from 11 children so I had to share my clothes with my brothers. There was days I didn't have a nickel for the bus. I had a bus pass that reduced the price to a nickel, but I didn't have the nickel. That sounds almost impossible to me to think that in my household a nickel wasn't available. But it's true. It's true and I know there's many families . . .

I couldn't imagine that right now for my son. He won't even pick up a nickel. I still pick up dimes and nickels when I see them. I remember we didn't have a nickel so I had to walk to school, and it's winter. I'd rather stay home. What I did do, and I just want to share this with you, I think our character does this as well, is self-study. So you see Blake, he'd be in that room and draw it. He had to go into it and do it yourself. That's something I did. I studied myself and read a lot of books. Even though I wasn't in school I made sure I was schooled.

That's why your body of work is so important because one, you're talking about what people go through not just in the history of music but in film, and two, you show how complex and multi-layered Black people are. We're not just one thing. We can be genius producers, we can be genius artists, we can be in anything from karate to physics. We have the power to be able to do all of that. I think it makes for rich art. You also touch on police violence in the film, which is extremely timely because of everything that's happened in the country right now. Have you been seeing the protests and just reflecting on the energy?

Of course. I'm proud of the protestors in the sense of those who do it right. I mean looting ain't right, you know that, no matter what. Taking what ain't yours, you become similar to the same thing you're fighting. You add fuel to the fire of the problem instead of adding water to the fire.

But, look, I'll be open with you, I'll be open book for you right now. My daughter calls me up, 18 years old, and she says she's going to the protests. I'm like, "What?" This is after it was already on the news. People was looting. I was like, "I don't think so." She said, "But I want to go." I said, "Well, is your spirit asking you to go?" She said, "Yes." Then I said, "You got to go then." I said "I'm nervous for you. I'm your father. I cannot tell you not to go represent what you feel."

But I was nervous and scared. Then, come to find out at least about 20 of my family members, because she done gathered all her cousins. The thing is, she goes to an all-white school, maybe there's like 20 Blacks out of 800 students or something. All her classmates went with her and a bunch of white students, 18 year olds, they went with her. They all went because they felt the wrong that was happening. They wanted to be a voice for that. So I'm proud of the protesters. They made it home safe and nothing happened and they left at the right time. They prepped themselves, they said when it gets dark they're leaving. If they see anyone drinking or smoking, I told her, "This ain't no festival." They said they went, they protested, they felt good, they walked 10 miles. They represented and they all got home safe.

I tell you that story to say that as a father, I was proud that my child had the self-motivation to do that. As a Black man, I'm feeling proud that our words are echoing in other parts of our country community when you see our white brothers and our Latin brothers and our Asian brothers all marching with us. That's Dr. King's dream. It's like everybody is against injustice. Everybody should be against injustice. Everybody should be because injustice actually doesn't discriminate anyways. Just like the pandemic, the virus doesn't discriminate, you know what I mean? It'll catch whoever breathes it in. It's in you. It's going to party with whoever it catches. So in that capacity, it is important that the reality exists. In the film capacity, this film takes place in 2005 and that problem is still there.

Yeah that's the crazy part and just how you connect in the film with how Bush failed the people of New Orleans. Now Trump is failing Black people and the country as a whole in the way he's dealing with COVID.

I do want to say that there's multiple police characters in our film. There's one character who, to me, sees it a little different than the rest of her force. I think that's important to show. When I chose to cast Eiza Gonzales as Lucinda, when the script was first written, it was written for maybe a man. I read it and I was like, it doesn't feel natural. It doesn't feel like the human instinct would come out of a man in that situation, in that climate. But in a woman, I could see that happening because of the instincts. Women got certain instincts that we got to take our hats off to. I know a lot of us don't but I do. I casted her and I told her that that's the instinct I want to bring to the character and she brought it. Eiza Gonzales, I think she did a great job for me on the film.

There's a moral and a spiritual element that you bring to this project, in terms of faith for the young guys in the film. Right versus wrong, fairness and what that means. As a director, what commentary would you like viewers to take away?

Look, there is a right and there is a wrong. People will tell you that's arbitrary or subjective. Right? I'm going to just hit you with the word of Buddha. He said, "Truth needs no evidence." Think about that for a quick. The truth don't need no evidence because the truth is the truth. It don't got to be validated. It exists whether you know it or not. What's right, I think, exists whether we accept it or not. Hopefully in this story, when people watch the film, I hope they at least see that there's some of us on the right side of things and some of us on the wrong side of things.

Your body of work is already legendary. I feel like you going to be studied in schools forever, like 100, 200, 300 years from now. Where does this film fit in?

Well, this film for me right now is like the consolidation, like the concrete has dried for me as a director. The first film was a big challenge. I studied by one of the great directors, I studied under Tarantino so I had a great teacher. But to finally get to my own voice of execution it took trial and error. I feel like this film is like, wow, I have arrived. You know what I mean? Before I started filming, I had went and did a couple of TV episodes, just to kind of keep my . . .  like going to the gym. By the time I got to this set and to have this great cast of talent and being able to put everything in the right position, I was forged. When I got through it, I felt like, wow. It's like if I was a boxer, I'm ready for a heavyweight championship fight. I feel this film is that for me. It's like wow, RZA, I understand exactly how to do this.

Your Hulu show "Wu-Tang: An American Saga" is classic. For my wife and me, that's the best thing on television right now. What can we expect from Season 2? Are we going to see Bobby's POV?

Well good news with Season 2 is U-God has signed on.People was asking what happened to U-God.

Yeah, where U-God at?

He makes a great appearance in it. This Season 2, you're going to have a lot of fun. There's going to be a lot of things you don't know about Wu. You'll see it revealed. There's going to be things you know, things you heard but never put the magnifying glass on and you're going to see it. I think one thing that's really special about the season now is I think we already established the family dynamics of everybody. Now we have to establish the group dynamics. I think that's going to be a very fun watch, a very fun watch.

We got a date on that yet? Or are you trying to figure it out with COVID and all?

We're trying to figure it out. We're trying to get through this COVID. One thing I can say to you, bro, is that it's like we got to rewrite the book of how to do things now. One thing about Hollywood that I can honestly admit to you from being someone who comes from Staten Island, Brooklyn and come here and building a career, is that it's definitely an industry full of ingenuity and very smart people. People here have had years to figure out. Something about Hollywood and a movie set, it has almost military precision. Because of that, that's why you're able to see things blowing up and people falling off because it's precision and the understanding of cause and effect and trial and error has been done already, right?

So even for the pandemic right now, a lot of great minds are coming together and figuring out how do we operate after this? There are pages coming out all the time that's just giving guidelines and ideas. I think by the time we all get back to work, whatever comes out of this it maybe even healthy for another industry because a lot of great minds are going in to try to figure this out. I'll say that "Wu-Tang American Saga" Season 2 will start production once we get through that part.

Yeah, because you can't shoot that in the studio. You got to shoot that in Staten Island.

You can't shoot that in a studio.

That was all shot in Staten Island, right?

Yeah, we shot right in Park Hill, right in Stapleton.

How does it feel just seeing so many parts of your childhood just on the screen, just sitting back? I know they mix it up as much as they can because you're compiling a lot of time, but what does it feel like?

Well I mean, I'll just use my little brother as an example so I won't be so egotistic. We had to go back to the house we grew up in, 88 Lowell Avenue. Me and my little brother went back there, this is during the scouting process, and the people who own it now let us in, and we looked at it. He went up to his old room and looked at it. We was like, wow, remember this? Like the stained glass window was still there. We couldn't believe it. It was nostalgia.

Then, my little brother, he lives in Ohio, so he was visiting, he went back to Ohio. Maybe about four months later, during the filming process, he came back to town to hang out for a few weeks. He came to the set and we had rebuilt that whole house. When he walked in there he was like, "Yo, that's incredible." My mom had passed away already, so he just felt the presence of her spirit in everything there. It's a blessing, bro. Seriously, they say dreams come true, dreams can come true. For me, this is an example of a dream coming true.

Wishing you much blessings and more success man. Looking forward to seeing what you do next.

Respect. Peace. Bong bong.

"Cut Throat City" is in theaters beginning Friday, Aug. 21.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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