' ' Cinema Romantico: Cut Throat City

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Cut Throat City

As RZA’s “Cut Throat City” opens, four best friends - Blink (Shameik Moore), Miracle (Demetrius Shipp, Jr.), Junior (Keean Johnson), and Andre (Denzel Whitaker) - are packed tight in the back of a van, smoking, drinking, giving each other shit. They are also discussing movies. If it’s meta, it’s less so in that way of Tarantino, who is name-checked, than conspicuously citing RZA’s influences. Those include “The Godfather” and “The Wizard of Oz.” If the former evokes how “Cut Throat City” weaves a tapestry of New Orleans society than the latter illustrates how its quartet takes a journey away from the grim circumstances of its home in the Lower 9th World and into the bigger world, discovering the Emerald City is not so much a place where wishes come true but backroom wheelers and dealers have the power to grant your wish, if they so choose, a movie less about the power of home, really, than the powerlessness of community in the face of those who rule it. 

The quartet’s conservation precipitates Blink’s marriage to Demyra (Kat Graham), a lovely scene juxtaposed against the impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina, heralded in an ominous crack of thunder. The storm’s terrible aftermath is glimpsed throughout on the periphery, visual reminders of the destruction wrought, and in the dire economic circumstances of the characters, unable to find work or acquire FEMA aid. When Miracle turns to drug dealing, it is not a shorthand for evil but an evocation of how, in some neighborhoods, in the Lower 9th Ward specifically, that’s the only job one can get, his friends comically chastising him for being so bad at it. Eventually the quartets turns to crime, tasked by Cousin Bass (T.I.) to rob a casino which got the FEMA aid these could not.

“Cut Throat City”, however, does not see this through a Robin Hood lens, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The quartet is not necessarily cut out for this life as the familiar shaky cam effuses, less cinematographic subterfuge than epitomizing in-over-their-head jitters. After a single robbery that does not go right, they wind up on the lam, desperate at first before becoming unhinged by the pull of the money’s power. The latter does not quite scan, as if the movie is missing one transition scene. And even if ample time is spent setting up Blink as an aspiring graphic novelist, the characters work less as individuals than a group.

That last one is not a criticism. In fact, it is an impressive, bold narrative choice by RZA to detach from his protagonists midway through and hand the story off to a Crescent City cabal. If at first city councilman Jackson Symms, wonderfully played by Ethan Hawke with a boisterous good ol’ boyishness, wants these thieves brought to justice simply to ensure it will not disrupt the business he has helped kick up post-Katrina, he reconsiders after a special request and transforms into a boozy General George C. Marshall from “Saving Private Ryan” imploring the need to save these boys before the wrong people get them first. This unveils a whole clandestine system of bad dudes and crooked cops, not to mention The Saint (Terrence Howard, whose eerie affability makes the character seems like he lives among the clouds), nothing less than The Wizard, pulling so many societal strings, holding the fate of four nobodies in the palm of his hand.

But if “Cut Throat City’s” friends get to click their heels together three times and be home, home is no magical elixir, still compelled by unseen forces. That is why RZA does not end his movie there, happily yet bleakly, pivoting once more and allowing his characters to lash out by taking their fate into their own hands, transforming a traditional blaze of glory into something more like a vicious howl of despair, bringing to mind the words of a 2020 song by Louisiana’s own Lucinda Williams: “you can’t take my soul and try to rule me too.”

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