Known as RZA, of the world renowned Wu-Tang Clan, Brooklyn-born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs is one of hip hop’s enigmatic impresarios; a veritable renaissance man of untold talents. One facet being acting–RZA costars in the new urban drama, BRICK MANSIONS, also starring David Belle (“Columbia”) and the late Paul Walker (“Fast & Furious”).
In BRICK MANSIONS, only the strong survive. In this dog-eat-dog society, the ruthless, urbane, and deadly drug kingpin Tremaine (RZA) is at the top of the food chain. Undercover cop Damien Collier (Walker) is determined to bring Tremaine to justice for killing his father years prior. Now, more than ever, the line between justice and revenge is razor thin. For Damien, every day is a fight against corruption and although it isn’t apparent at first, he finds an unlikely ally in one of the last good souls of Brick Mansions, Lino (Belle).
Stuck in the unpredictable and dangerous concrete jungle of Brick Mansions, Lino battles everyday to live an honest life. A vigilante in his own right, he fights for a better overall community.
Speaking to me recently by phone from New York, in the few minutes we had to talk, RZA wanted to know what city I was in. When I told him Oakland, California, he began to tell me of current events in this city, displaying familiarity and fondness; RZA had visited not long ago and plans to return to the Bay Area soon. Frankly, I was surprised that he wanted an update on the status of our young men and the gun violence that circles them– typically, my role is to ask the questions–I spoke candidly.
“Let me try and answer your question in the most diplomatic way that I can. Oakland is a beautiful city and yes, we have a tremendous challenge with crime; if I may borrow from a literary reference, sometimes it feels like a proverbial tale of two cities, two clouds hovering, one amid blue skies and optimism, the other showers of pain and despair. The hope lies in the fortitude, the hard work being done to help young people turn a corner and seek new solutions not just in Oakland but the whole of the Bay Area and surrounding cities from Richmond to San Francisco to San Jose.”
RZA offered his perspective, a solution found in alternatives. “I’ve invested in a boxing club in the Bay Area, maybe the kids need another outlet for their energy because I think, from growing up in an environment that was similar, we (adults) don’t find the outlets for their energy. Sometimes the adults don’t even know that their (kids) energy is backed up; the same way you don’t know your drain is clogged until the water backs up. I think some of this energy in the young brothers is clogged up and they need to get it out; its aggressive energy, it’s not just playful energy. When that aggressive energy is accompanied with drugs, that scenario leads to total chaos and I know Northern CA’s got some of the best weed in the world (laughter). I think there are a lot of variables involved. I’m concerned when I hear about Chicago, and in my neighborhood; I grew up in Brownsville (Brooklyn, NY). Last year, we had 90 deaths during the summer, it was just ridiculous. We see more people dying here at home than we see dying in war.”
Flowing with the conversation, we continued. I opined, “You bring up a couple of interesting things; are you still playing chess”? He asserted, “Yeah, I love chess. The Hip Hop Chess Federation (http://hiphopchessfederation.wordpress.com/page/3/) is actually founded by a guy from Oakland and I’m the current champion. I think we’re scheduled to come there again in September.”
Settled into the conversation, I reminded him of the last time we spoke, in New York several years ago during interviews for the film, AMERICAN GANGSTER, with Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Idris Elba, Common and Miss Ruby Dee. RZA shared an interesting story explaining why he chose to stop sagging. His reasoning, “You can’t run fast if the cops are chasing you with the waist of your pants hanging around your legs.” Unable to resist revisiting that exchange, he obliged with a slight chuckle, “Yeah, my brother got caught actually because his pants was sagging. Thanks for remembering that, that was part of my last reality.”
By now, sensing his comfort with an authentic conversation I indulged further, “I find you intriguing to say the least and that’s only one word to describe your complexities. I’d like your opinion on the topical trend that many are putting forth–writing letters to themselves, to their younger self, in particular–and the advice they’ve give, retrospectively. Were you to write two letters: one to your younger self 20 years ago, the other to yourself 20 years from now, what would RZA say to RZA?”
There is certain candor in his tone. He replied, “I think I would say, ‘stay on course.’ The course that I’ve decided to get on when I made that right decision has been a course that not only saved my life, it multiplied my life, it multiplied my family’s lives and many other families, including the Wu-Tang and their families. Think about the affiliates; think about the people in the industry that benefited from the growth of our music and other businesses I’ve been involved with as far as media, the movies and everything else. When it’s all totaled, the things I’ve been a part of will end up in the millions of gross revenue that we’ve brought to our industry. That money has helped many, many families; many people’s jobs so to be on that course and to still do it and still have my children say, ‘Dad, you’re a good Dad.’
“I would tell myself to ‘stay on course.’ And, 20 years from now, I would write to myself, stay on course because many of us enter the path but we fall off the path. We don’t prepare for the path so maybe I’ll add that one thing. I wasn’t aware of that knowledge to prepare until only a few years ago when working on the film, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (written and directed by RZA). They (producers) made me prep almost fourteen weeks. I felt like they were going to cheat me; I thought something was up their sleeve, fourteen weeks to prep!? Then, you don’t get your real money until you get the principal photography done. I wasn’t sure that after the end of those weeks that they weren’t going to say, ‘Oh, the movie’s not happening.’ But the preparation that the producers told me to do was relevant, adamant…actually, there was never enough time. When you’re preparing for something that’s so important you want to be fully prepared and you don’t know how deep the water is until you get into the water. So I would write myself and say, in both cases, stay on course and prepare for it. I’d write myself 20 years from now and say, stay on course and be prepared.”
Grateful for our unrehearsed discourse, I extended the third-party probe and observation. “RZA, people listen to you and hold onto the words you speak. When did you recognize that your impact and footprint are of one that people remember and respond to; when did you begin to recognize that power within yourself?”
“I’m not going to take that kind of compliment or whatever it was because I just want to strive to be the best I can be…if I can leave a footprint and it’s going to help someone. I’m not one for self-praise. It doesn’t really have gravity to self-praise ourselves, right? But I did read somewhere that if you can, if you strive to be good at something, leave a footprint, then try to leave a footprint behind and I strive to leave a footprint. Not saying that I have answers or things like that but I know where I came from and in those days, when we were doing all the foolishness that we were indulging in, there was an alternate road. There was an alternate direction. Some kids don’t know that you could go left or you could go right; they think, ‘hey, you got to go this way.’
“But life is better with a map; when the first man came across the seas from Europe to America, they drew a map so the second ship could get there easier. I strive, if I can, to leave a map, leave footprints for somebody that’s coming behind me whether it’s my children, whether it’s some young people from my neighborhood or whether it’s just an American man that wanted to understand how it is to be an American, Black American, White American.
“You know in this world, in this country where we live, I try to make an example to be the best that I can and hopefully it can inspire somebody else. But you never know if you’re doing it right or wrong, you just hope that your goodness or whatever it is, you hope that it is going to mean something. I want to thank you for what you said but it’s hard to take a compliment. I’m striving my best to be my best and hopefully that (effort) becomes something that’s worth something to me and to somebody else.”
We ended our brief conversation, though it could have gone longer given the rapport, with his reflections on BRICK MANSIONS. “Brick Mansions is a movie that’s based in futuristic Detroit where the politicians have built a great wall around the poor and the underprivileged people in the city. They’ve closed the schools, closed the hospitals, and basically took out all hope. I play a gangster named Tremaine Alexander who took this situation and used it to his advantage; he becomes a drug lord kingpin and he’s actually getting rich in the midst of everybody’s misery. He’s able to do so because he’s a little smarter, has a little more charisma, and uses it to his advantage.
“Paul Walker, the star of the film, plays a cop named Damien, a second generation decorated cop whose father was killed in Brick Mansions. The man responsible is Tremaine Alexander. But there’s also Lino who lives in this community but he’s not part of it. He’s the Robin Hood of Brick Mansions. He hates the drug dealing, hates the violence and he’s a hero in the community. Lino steals 20 kilos from Tremaine so there’s a big fight going on between them. Lino and Damien are against Tremaine and the cool thing about it is, the action sequences, the warfare is carried out in Parkour, which is a French style of martial arts that started in the streets of France. We’ve seen a little bit of it in James Bond movies; we’ve seen a little bit of it in Divergent but, this movie is full of that kind of action and has not been seen this much in American films. So, audiences will be thrilled. It’s a story of good versus evil yet at the same time, I think the audience will find out that sometimes there’s even a higher evil than the evil that’s in front of us. I think that’s the twist to the movie.” Watch a clip from “Brick Mansions” at this link,http://youtu.be/sSsKmo9lZUc