Snow on tha Bluff opens with a great fake-out. Three twentysomethings stand atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain, scanning the vista with their digital camera. One opines that he would never want to live permanently in Atlanta, and muses about his future in New York City. Cut to the same trio as they cruise “the Bluff,” an economically destitute section of Atlanta notorious for its drug trade, in search of a score. Both the car’s driver and the dude who continues to operate the camera sound audibly nervous about driving through this part of town—apprehension their friend casually dismisses. “You assholes watch too many movies,” she says with a chortle. “Like, ‘We’re gonna get car-jacked in the hood, yo!’” Shaky cam, youthful disaffection, overlapping dialogue—so far, so mumblecore-ish.
Their car isn’t jacked, but their movie is. After a couple minutes of searching, the threesome finds a willing dealer. The gangly black man hops into their car and tells them to drive around the block to his storage place, and with the car pulled over on a side street, he whips out a pistol, snatches their valuables (including the camera), and takes to the streets. In one swift and brutal move, the film kicks these self-satisfied navel-gazers to the curb. Only then does director Damon Russell introduce his true subject: Curtis Snow, the wily thief whose sudden possession of a recording apparatus prompts him to document the ins and outs of his life on the street. A dope slinger and armed robber by trade, Snow spends his days scoping out rival dealers, packaging product in safe houses, and stalking the streets of the Bluff with his friends, a 40 oz., and a blunt never far from hand. He’s also a father of a two-year-old boy, trying to be a presence in his son’s life while remaining on cordial terms with the child’s mother. Snow finds these two sides of his life coming into troubling contact with one another as an escalating series of drug-gang retaliations makes both Curtis and his loved ones targets for sudden violence. Snow on tha Bluff doesn’t push these plot machinations too hard, though. Russell structures the film along episodic lines, with bursts of gunplay sandwiched between bouts of block-party revelry and Snow’s to-the-camera confessionals about his lifelong role in the drug trade.
The film frames its fly-on-the-wall imagery as “found” material—or, at least, as preexisting footage that Snow “handed off” to Russell for assemblage. (The director has freely admitted in interviews that the film is a complex mélange of snippets that Curtis—essentially playing a version of himself—shot on his own before approaching Russell, and scenes that Russell had a hand in staging.) Let’s not delve too far down the rabbit hole of where the “docu” ends and the “drama” begins in Snow on tha Bluff. Instead, it’s worth considering how Russell is potentially using the former to justify—or, at the very least, naturalize—the latter. The film’s oscillation between violent gangland reprisals and tender familial respites can be found in many a boyz-in-the-hood cine-fantasy. Though its loose construction offers an admirable attempt to convey the rhythms of daily life, the familiarity of the material can sometimes call Russell’s direct-cinema aesthetics into question. Should we accept the validity of this street-life portrait simply because it comes to us through a jiggling camera lens?
Questions of authenticity aside, Russell evinces a shrewd understanding of how to juxtapose the handheld camera’s finite sightline with the bursts of chaos that suddenly invade it. Cruising down the street becomes interrupted by an unexplained fight between two women, which concludes as quickly as it begins. A lackadaisically paced party sequence whipsaws into bedlam with the jarring announcement of a loved one’s murder. Just as often, the surprises come from the flashes of corrosive self-awareness that Snow tosses off to the camera, as when he casually suggests that he began selling drugs to his mother to protect her from poor-quality street dope. Snow on tha Bluff makes little effort to hide Curtis’s penchants for selfishness, indulgence, and cruelty. Moments like this nicely balance these faults with an acknowledgment of the hard realities that shaped them. Russell’s concluding attempt to explain how Snow’s footage “became” a film feels particularly contrived when compared the unforced candor that came before it. The film gains its power not from its blurring of reality and fiction, but from how forcefully it suggests the continuation of lived experience, just beyond the edge of the frame.