ATLFF 2011: Snow On Tha Bluff - Guest Review

By Paul Sbrizzi

Snow On Tha Bluff is a raw and vivid, hybrid documentary / narrative film that cuts through the hype and mythology to deliver a clear-eyed, uncensored look at gangsta life—and death—in the inner city. Director/writer Damon Russell teams up with co-writer and lead actor Curtis Snow, a charismatic, self-described dope dealer and robbery boy, to tell a story based on Snow’s actual experiences in the Bluff, the violent, poverty-stricken neighborhood of Atlanta . Far from bleak, it’s by turns funny, scary, warm and thoughtful, and Snow carries it with megawatts of star power.

It opens with naïve outsiders getting robbed—a multi-culti group of hip college kids who think they know how to navigate the Bluff to score drugs (and this frames a basic conceit of the film: for people who think they know the hood, here’s a strong dose of reality). Curtis talks his way into their car, robs them, and uses their camera to tell his story.

We’re instantly brought into the thick of the subculture: the careful planning and execution of a violent raid on rival dealers unfolds, the dialogue spoken in the rich cadence of the local dialect—Russell and Snow are committed to showing this world’s genuine texture and rhythms rather than streamlining it in any way. Next thing it’s morning and there’s been a murder (real cops, real cop cars, and the aftermath of a real crime are cleverly used here and throughout the film). “Like I say it just a regular day in the hood, know rah mean,” says Curtis, “back to your regularly scheduled program.”

A trip to grandma’s house brings Curtis a stern warning: “It’s nothing in the streets but trouble, and death,” she says, “there’s just one step between you and death: you never know when you’re makin’ that last step.” Cut to Curtis out on the porch with a liquor bottle, laughing: “That shit’s scary!”

He quickly puts grandma out of mind. A dope party, another armed robbery, and a surreal fight between two women in the back seat of an old car (one of them literally rips the other one’s pants off and then looks with concern at the state of her fingernail) are juxtaposed with Curtis’ cuddly visits to see his baby mama and his son, baby Curtis, who live in an incongruously quiet and tidy condo complex on the other side of town. “I had to make that move there,” confides Curtis, “let them folks know, know rah mean, hey hey hey I love my baby, I love her, everything good.”

In his asides we see his mind constantly plotting, strategizing offense and defense, always in the fight. The narrative follows an increasingly violent series of attacks and reprisals between Curtis and White Hat, his stealthy nemesis. In one chilling scene, Curtis, freshly out of prison, talks to his crew about going after White Hat’s family: “My heart gone right now. I got a heart but it’s gone.”

The film’s underlying theme is the reality of survival. “Well drugs kill now, but at the same time, shit, they also help you out, they pay your rent if you ain’t got no job,” says Curtis. When his baby mama talks to him about making money the right way, he drawls back “Ain’t no right or no wrong way—there’s the need way.” And there’s little hope that any of this will change: one of the film’s most intense and evocative images is baby Curtis repeatedly smacking his daddy’s plate of crack cocaine baggies with a Mylar “thank you” balloon, as Curtis reminisces about watching his uncle fill baggies when he was a child himself.

Still, you sense that stealing and selling dope, for Curtis, is also a bit of a compulsion. “When you need something, or you got to have something,” he grins, “only one way you gonna get it right then and there.”

The look of the film is appropriately gritty, the use of night vision adding to the intensity of the robberies, and the rough, hand-held footage of the chaotic night scenes contrasting nicely with the sober, reflective mood of daytime. Russell incorporates surprising elements like a playground peek-a-boo with baby Curtis, bringing a warmth and sense of space to the film. The non-actors are uniformly excellent, vivid as characters and utterly natural on camera.

The feat of combining staged and documentary footage is accomplished with great success, because the intention isn’t to moralize or sensationalize, but to accurately portray the lifestyle. Snow On Tha Bluff is in its own way an important movie—it’s the act of taking the camera back, and creating an authentic, uncensored self-portrait of a man and his community.

Paul Sbrizzi is a film writer for Hammer to Nail, and a features programmer for the Slamdance Film Festival.