STATEN ISLAND, NY – When the outside world thinks of Staten Island, a few things come to mind: pizza, picturesque parks, and the Wu.
A native of the Park Hill section of Clifton, RZA (born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) curated one of the greatest rap collectives of all time: the Wu-Tang Clan. Inspired by kung-fu and Asian culture, RZA and Wu-Tang gave boom-bap hip-hop a distinctive sound while putting Staten Island, or as they call it “Shaolin,” on the map.
In the years since, RZA has become a force in the music, business and film industries. Regardless, he’s made sure to protect the borough’s neck of the woods, whether it’s donating much-needed technology to PS 78, Stapleton or welcoming islanders to Alamo Drafthouse’s kung-fu-inspired Flying Guillotine bar.
The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did your love for cinema begin?
I think it started as soon as I saw a movie in a movie theater. The experience of watching something on a big screen took me to another world. But as far as becoming a fan, I was probably 9 years old, watching a kung-fu double-feature movie and I was just blown away.
What is your favorite kung fu or action movie of all time?
This is a tough question, but if someone wanted to watch a kung fu movie and had never seen one, I would give them two options. I’d give them Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” because Bruce Lee is one of the greatest, most correct, most diverse of this cast. It is one of the first to have such a diverse cast. But I would also offer them “36 Chambers of Shaolin”, because of the perseverance of a human who goes through oppression and finds himself, finds skills and returns to help his community. It’s a beautiful story.
How did the partnership with Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas come about?
Well, first of all, I’m a fan [founder/executive chairman] Tim [League] and Alamo Drafthouse. When I first met Tim, he had two of these theaters. I was in Austin, Texas, and I had fun as a moviegoer. I sat there – people were taking my order, writing it down, bending down and coming back and taking it [food and drinks]. I had bottles of wine then; they needed a corkscrew! So I had a great time and also enjoyed the selection of movies that were playing.
I met Tim through my friend, Quentin [Tarantino], and we became friends and built our own relationship. When he said he was going to build one in Staten Island and contacted me, I said, “Yes, I’d love to help in any way to help bring that vision to fruition.”
And when we started talking about it, I think every Alamo Drafthouse has a theme—the wax museum, of course, the arcade in LA, North Carolina has a theme, but [we wanted] a kung-fu theme in Shaolin. We sent a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, a lot of tenacity to bring it to life.
When you were growing up, where did you go to the movies?
Well, here in Staten Island, we had the Paramount Theater and we had the St. George Theatre. It was like the early 80’s and maybe late 70’s. I remember seeing “Rocky” at the Paramount Theater so whatever year it was (1976). And then we end up with the UA Theater on Hylan Boulevard. In that area, the last time there was anything like a full thing for me was, I think, they had “Higher Learning,” the John Singleton movie, and it was just one of those things that really resonated with all of us because Staten Island at the time had a lot to figure out.
Yes, I am a cinephile, I appeared in all the cinemas. I will honestly say, and with no disrespect to Staten Island, we have never had a theater like this. A theater like this has never existed on Staten Island. Look, a theater like this hasn’t existed in many places; they need it, right? A place where you can come and watch the best current movies produced in Hollywood, [or] you have an indie film that might not be on 2,000 screens that you can find here. But most importantly, [you’ve got] films curated by staff and film lovers put in front of an audience, which will educate the audience.
Here, martial arts films are the theme: the posters, the Flying Guillotine bar and every Saturday there will be Kung-fu Shaolin Saturday. Every Saturday we will make a film to bring this kung-fu atmosphere to the public. And maybe there’s another kid out there who’ll figure it out and become another RZA from Staten Island.
When you watch movies, what’s your snack?
I’ll give you two snacks. I’m vegan and they make some of the best Beyond Burgers in the business [at Alamo Drafthouse], so you have to get that and the artisanal popcorn. They have a great menu; you will have a great time. But for me, a bucket of popcorn and a Beyond Burger with fries.
Every true Staten Islander has a favorite pizza place. what is yours
Well, listen, I can say this with all pride and courage. For many years, Brother’s Pizzeria in Port Richmond has been my go-to. We drove from Park Hill to Port Richmond for this pizza.