The Man With The Iron Fists, a violent tribute to the Golden Age of martial-arts films that marks the directorial (and lead acting) debut of The RZA, best known as the founder and nominal leader of seminal New York hip-hop collaboration The Wu-Tang Clan, opens today in theaters nationwide. At the time of this writing, it had not been screened for critics, but the film's producers allowed myself and other Boston-area journalists the opportunity to sit down for an interview with The RZA himself. The following quotes are taken from said interview.
"It could be because at the time martial arts films came to the U.S., hip hop culture was being born. For me, martial arts films gave me a way to escape myself - my poverty. It was the place I went and I was in a whole other world. Think about Grand Master Flash - a name we use. Wu-Tang, of course. Ghostface Killer is right from a movie. Old Dirty Bastard is right from a movie." - The RZA, on why hip hop and martial arts culture are such a surprisingly good fit with one another.
Born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs - as in Robert Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy - The RZA was grew up in Brooklyn, New York and spent much of his youth living with family in Pennsylvania and later North Carolina. According to his own backstory, now a thing of legend in the annals of hip hop history, among the few positive constants of his early life was his love for the classic martial arts films of Hong Kong and China. At the time, these films were a familiar fixture of smaller movie theaters located in economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.
"The villain with the white hair ... he always shows up [in classic kung-fu movies]. It's funny, the film's producers ... they didn't get it. Did not get that character, like ... 'Who the f*** is this guy?' They didn't know. But I'm all ... 'Listen, this is part of the genre. There's always this guy that just pops the f*** up.'"
There's no exact reason as to why a generation of underprivileged, (mostly) African American youth like The RZA grew up fixated on the mythology of kung fu movies. For some, it's the simple fact that they were among the most action-heavy material that independent theaters in what are now euphemistically called "urban" neighborhoods could afford to book and show. But others have suggested a more romantic notion, in that the martial arts genre's recurring stories of downtrodden commoners studying secret techniques to strike back at institutional corruption resonated with them on a level that transcended the occasionally laughable presentation of the films themselves. Whatever the truth is, the phenomenon was real and these films had few students as dedicated as The RZA, who not only memorized the names of his favorite actors, filmmakers and characters, but absorbed the themes and trappings of the films themselves into a complex personal philosophy.
"Quentin [Tarantino] came to the set, which was an honor ... to have my mentor there. And to have him say, 'You've captured the authenticity of all the old kung fu films.' That was ... whoa."
So when he re-emerged in New York as a talent to be reckoned with during the hip hop of explosion of the early 90s, The RZA approached the medium in a manner just slightly askew from other "name" acts of the time. Assembling a crew of friends and associates including future genre luminaries like Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface Killah and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, The RZA formed a hip hop collective that mixed the superficial elements of the ascendant "gangsta" movement with an undercurrent of urban warrior philosophizing culled from the melodramatic mythology of RZA's beloved kung fu movies. From there, they also took a name: The Wu-Tang Clan.
But The RZA's ambitions extended beyond music. He found his way to Hollywood, and where other hip hop stars aimed for action and comedy roles, RZA again took a different path. He built up a resume of interesting work with underground iconoclasts like Jim Jarmusch, indie auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth (who produced and helped direct Fists) and big-time legends like Ridley Scott - all of whom he studied while on set, intending to learn filmmaking from the masters hands-on.