STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — When the outside world thinks of Staten Island, a few things come to mind: pizza, scenic parks and Wu.
Hailing from the Park Hill area 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. Through it all, he’s made sure to protect the neighborhood’s neck of the woods—whether it’s donating much-needed technology to PS 78, Stapleton, or welcoming Islanders to the 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 just took me to another world. But as far as becoming a fanatic, I was probably about 9 years old, watching a two-story kung fu movie and just being blown away.
What is your favorite action or kung fu movie of all time?
This is a tough question, but if someone wants to watch a kung fu movie and has never seen one, I would give them two choices. I would suggest Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon because Bruce Lee is one of the greatest, isn’t he, and the diversity of this cast. It’s one of the first to have such a diverse cast. But I would also suggest The 36 Rooms of Shaolin to them because of the perseverance of a man going through oppression and finding himself, finding skills and coming back 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 of [founder/executive chairman] Tim [League] and the Alamo Drafthouse. When I first met Tim, he had two of these theaters. I was in Austin, Texas, just having fun being a moviegoer. I just sat there – people taking my order, writing it down, bending down, coming back and carrying me [food and drinks]. Then there were bottles of wine; they should have gotten a corkscrew! So I really had a good time and enjoyed the selection of films that were playing.
I met Tim through my friend, Quentin [Tarantino], we became friends and built our own relationship. When he said he was going to build one in Staten Island and contacted me, I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to help in any capacity to help make that vision happen.”
And when we started talking about it, I think every Alamo Drafthouse has a theme—a wax museum, sure, the arcade in LA, North Carolina has a theme, but [we wanted] Shaolin kung fu theme. We sent a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, a lot of persistence to bring it to life.
Where did you go to the movies when you were growing up?
Well, here on Staten Island, we had the Paramount Theater, and at first we had the St. George Theatre. This was like the early 80’s and maybe the 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 packaged thing for me was, I think they had Higher Education, 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’m a movie buff, I’ve been to all the theaters. I’ll be honest, and no disrespect to Staten Island, we’ve never had a theater like this. There was no such theater on Staten Island. Look, there wasn’t a theater like that in many places; they need it, don’t they? A place where you could come and watch the current top movies produced by Hollywood, [or] you have an independent film that may not be on 2000 screens, you may find it here. But more importantly, [you’ve got] curated films by staff and film lovers put in front of an audience that will educate the audience.
The theme here is martial arts movies – the posters, the Flying Guillotine bar, and every Saturday will be Shaolin Kung Fu Saturday. We will have a movie every Saturday to bring that Kung Fu atmosphere to the audience. And maybe there’s another kid who will figure it out and become another RZA right out of Staten Island.
When watching movies, what kind of breakfast do you prefer?
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 should get that and the artisan popcorn. They have a great menu; you’ll 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 that it will all be 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.