RZA’s ‘Cut Throat City’ Goes Beyond Its Caper Into a Radical Reflection of American Inequality

In this heated and uncertain summer, here comes RZA with a heist movie that is actually a radical statement about American inequality. “Cut Throat City” could have fallen into the same old routine of many other movies about desperate characters wanting to get-rich-quick by donning a mask, hoodie and robbing some pre-selected spot. Instead RZA makes a film with real grit, setting it in a post-Katrina New Orleans where Black Americans feel the system has again left them behind. RZA, best known as a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan, continues an impressive transition from rap star to filmmaker. While he has made films before about subjects he knows or that he is a fan of, this is his first movie that’s truly about urgent themes he cares about.

It is early 2006, months after the devastation Hurricane Katrina unleashed on New Orleans in August 2005. Four boyhood friends return to the Lower Ninth Ward, which remains without power or running water, but full of empty promises from the local FEMA outpost. Blink (Shameik Moore) is an aspiring artist, with a great talent for comic book illustrations. He has a child with wife Demyra (Kat Graham) and in this storm-tossed city, cannot find adequate work. His friends, Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), Junior (Keean Johnson) and Andre (Denzel Whitaker), are also struggling. The friends decide to take an offer from a local gangster, Cousin Bass (T.I.), to rob a local casino. When the heist goes wrong, Blink and his crew are suddenly targets of Cousin Bass, who is convinced they are hiding the loot. They become exiles from the Ninth Ward. Meanwhile, a detective named Lucinda Valencia (Eiza González), gets on the case which will take her into a deep nest of corruption.

Yes, the plot of “Cut Throat City” can sound familiar. But both RZA and writer P.G. Cuschieri do something that is sorely lacking in most genre movies. They weave a great crime film by making it about more than just breaking the law. Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre are sharply written as the members of society stripped of opportunities by a combination of world events and systemic inequality. Blink has talent, but when he goes for a job interview at a white comic book publisher’s office he’s scoffed at. Seeking help from FEMA comes with cryptic answers and bureaucratic excuses for not providing new housing (or proper utilities). Those who remember Katrina will recall the shocking footage of the flooded neighborhoods (which RZA uses to great effect), the Black residents practically begging for aid from rooftops, the seeming indifference of the Bush White House. “Cut Throat City” imagines how such a situation exasperates social fissures, and some may be tempted by extreme measures. Like last year’s great “Queen & Slim,” this is a movie where the characters are not perfect or romanticized, but very human. If the system offers little or nothing, life outside the margins suddenly looks attractive, even inevitable. 

RZA, who made his directorial debut with the kung fu fan fest “The Man With the Iron Fists,” can’t help himself and still has fun with what you can do with a crime film. Cousin Bass, played with devilish savvy by T.I., forces those who fail to pay to let a wild raccoon attack their groin. There are some well-staged, viscerally edited action scenes and chases, the heist moments are done with gritty style. As required in any heist movie characters meet in nightclubs, strippers lounge around with sad faces. Some music artists who switch to movies can be infamous for trying to make their work have a music video tone, not RZA, he’s the real deal. There’s actually not that much violence in this movie as the ads would suggest. The focus is on the characters and what they convey. Blink and his crew represent the system’s forgotten citizens, while Ethan Hawke plays Jackson Symms, a former cop turned slick political operator. Rob Morgan makes even his toothpick look corrupt as Courtney, a cynical detective who tries to warn Valencia that the game is never clean. Stealing the show is Terrence Howard as the Saint, a gangster in great threads, who likes to talk of ancestry before discussing his bloody business. 

But none of these characters ever come across as standard, cartoonish stereotypes. They have real discussions with each other about power, greed and the history of the city. Symms will drink by his wife’s grave remembering a conveniently overlooked event where the levees of the Ninth Ward were almost dynamited, for the benefit of the ruling class, and Courtney later compliments that anecdote with one about a pirate so rich, he placed a bounty on a governor’s head. Folky in the sultry New Orleans heat evoked by cinematographer Brandon Cox, the dialogue is immersive without being too expository, like a strong noir. RZA impressively juggles a whole gallery of personalities, including Wesley Snipes in a memorable, chameleon role as Blink’s father. 

“Cut Throat City” sneaks past its premise with relevant themes and strong symbolism, even the climactic action scenes take place in a setting where RZA’s social commentary is quite clear. But it never overwhelms the material. This is still in the end, a very good crime movie. But crime, above any other theme in movies or literature, says a lot about society and human nature. After the first, botched heist, Blink and his crew decide it’s not such a bad idea when done well. Not because they are greedy or “bad,” but because it seems so much easier in a system that leaves the Ninth Ward to essentially fend for itself. Katrina was 15 years ago, today we’ve been hit by a biological hurricane and the system feels paralyzed for many. Whether we become professional criminals or not, despair is relatable to anyone inside or outside the margins of the law.

Cut Throat City” releases Aug. 21 in select theaters.