I remember the first time I caught glimpses of Rumble in the Bronx, sitting in front of a TV older than I was, at my home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was entranced by the images of Jackie Chan and his fight scenes, not truly knowing why. For the years to follow, my love for martial arts cinema only grew. I’d get weird glances telling people how I would rather watch Five Deadly Venoms than Martin or the NBA playoffs.
In recent years, though, I’ve noticed I am not alone. There is a high rate of consumption of Asian media culture by African Americans here in the United States. It’s as if we’ve become sponges for this vein of entertainment from the other side of the world. Thanks to the themes, characters, portrayals of culture, and function of plots in martial arts action cinema from Asia, I believe a path was paved for a spiritual connection between Black American and Asian cultures. Because of this open path, there is a greater opportunity for intercultural collaboration on more diverse, inclusive feats of storytelling and filmmaking, forging a new media paradigm for the ages to come.
For the most part, I’m making assertions based on the many kung fu action films that flooded theaters starting in the 1970’s, which were often imported from Hong Kong. Many of my references reflect a relation between Black American culture and the Chinese martial arts culture projected in these films. Though I pull from specific historical contexts and reflect on the ways media from China in particular resonates with Black Americans, these reflections by no means are meant to be generalizations–other Asian nations have rich media cultures with their own slew of significance not examined herein.
Lil History on the Mic
To open such pathways for intercultural resonance, timing was imperative. The connections started in the late 60’s/early 70’s with the breakthrough of Hong Kong Martial Arts films. At the same time, another revolution was happening in America. Black people finally had the momentum to significantly shift paradigms. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. While Dr. King and his dominion waged war through non-violent civil disobedience, another segment called for a different protest. There was another movement to empower the people promoting self-love as one of its’ key pillars.
The Black Panther Movement.
Of the core tenets implemented by Huey P. Newton and his organization, there was a call to underscore pride in one’s self, pride in being Black. This idea was fundamentally counter-cultural because from America’s inception, Black people have continually been treated as and taught they were (are) secondary citizens to be considered less than human.
The Black Panthers led the charge in promoting and encouraging Black people to stand up for themselves against the physical and psychological assault on Black culture. Aided by the non-violent movement already underway in the South, there rose a chorus that grew into a crescendo across the nation.
“Say it loud–I’m Black and I’m proud.”
The idea of “Blackness” was being turned on it’s head. Our skin color wasn’t to be looked at as a visible shame, but as a cape of pride, of glory; a beacon glowing bright and intensely, illuminating a flat, pale world with our illustrious glow. Civil Rights organizations were becoming vanguards of Black culture, not only fighting back against oppression, but also reclaiming and defining what it meant to be Black. Their actions planted the seeds for cultural growth to continue. They also furthered the ideals of protecting our progress from being undermined by outside forces–the U.S. government, ideals of White supremacy, those threatened by a strong, unified Black citizenry. That’s where kung fu comes into play as a liberating projection of what could be for this increasingly energized community of Black folk.
Unlike the American media portrayals of White men as saviors and prince-charmings, kung fu films are not shy about naming Western European intruders with ill intent as villains. The “white devils” or “foreign devils” moniker is a recurring phrase. In many martial arts films, these foreign devils are hard at work invading, taking land, furthering their business ventures, and often times blatantly undermining and disrespecting Chinese culture. Does this sort of story sound familiar? It should.
Over the course of these movies, the protagonist(s) must use their martial training to defeat the powers that be–sometimes the black market, sometimes foreign fighters defeating less skillful martial artists–who may be stealing, or otherwise assaulting Chinese people and their culture. These themes may seem the makings of good fiction in a cinematic context, however there is quite a bit of historical context from which to pull inspiration for these stories.
China’s size and vastness of culture rivals, if not surpasses, any nation today, reaching farther and deeper than those of Western Europe. It is awe inspiring to the point of being legendary. But, China has an experience in common with much of the world that brings it back down to reality–colonialism.
Britain, clamoring for an ever expanding empire, found its way to China and exploited the popularity of opium (the key ingredient in heroin) to trade and grow its business influence in China, legally and illegally. Even while the Qing Empire prohibited the sale of opiates, British trading ships continued to smuggle and push the drug, inspiring a retaliation by the Emperor.
These efforts resulted in what is known as the Opium Wars. Many of the typical Western suspects were involved in support of the British; Spain, France–and even Russia and Japan. Eventually, shortly after the Civil War concluded, with limited yet notable support, the US joined with its own contributions.
I ask again, does this sound familiar? It should.
These tactics have been used time and again to colonize then exploit other nations throughout history. This is no different from the sale of guns and goods to African nations in exchange for human lives who would become the enslaved foundation of the Western hemisphere. These events were coupled with Western Europe’s concurrent invasion and colonization of Africa, draining it of its’ resources, oppressing and exploiting its peoples, shackling natives in their own homeland.
Furthermore, echoes of the Opium Wars can be found in the more contemporary American “War on Drugs“; posited as a benevolent and ethical solution for crime in “urban communities” while, in practice, targeting and disempowering already oppressed groups of Black and poor. These days, with gentrification on the rise, supposedly brave and well meaning White folk move into these neighborhoods, staging their own neo-colonization.
Victory…Complete, Unmistakable Victory
With this historical context in mind, kung fu cinema provides powerful visual statements from one colonized people to another. A key image brought forth in these films is the actualization of victory against the oppressive overlords. Especially when it comes to fighting “the Man,” seeing the triumph of people of color against a force larger and more powerful–politically, socially, or otherwise–is riveting, especially to an audience of people fighting insidious oppression in their daily life.
Although the writers and readers of books like The New Jim Crow and Slavery By Another Name might disagree with these figures, It took 250 years (roughly) of fighting and rebelling for Black people to be legally freed from physical chattle slavery in the United states. Then, it took nearly another 100 years to legally dismantle Jim Crow segregation laws. Bruce Lee can save his family’s business, restore honor to his name and his culture all the while undermining the oppressive structure disrespecting his people in about an hour and 45 minutes (Way Of The Dragon).
The kung fu film genre is one where a person of color is regularly depicted as 1) the good guy, and 2) the one with the unwavering power to defeat “the Man.”
Without much access to the necessary power and financial leverage to systematically dismantle the true life larceny and exploitation of Black people, the image of a person of color taking their culture back is invigorating. Black Americans can live vicariously through them and achieve a sense of victory, and maybe even visualize victory in our own circumstances.
For a people who have been in the Americas as long as we have, suffering through continued disenfranchisement and cultural sabotage, it may be no surprise that these kung fu heroes are often seen as intersectional heroes, inspiring generations long after their silver screen debut. These works of cinematic art show us images of empowered individuals reclaiming their identities, normalizing acts to defend and empower their people.
Not Time for Uncle Tom
Another aspect of kung fu cinema that I think resonates with Black Americans is the Uncle Tom character(s). In the films featuring foreign colonizers, there are usually a handful of Chinese men looking to make themselves rich by cooperating with the colonizers, aiding their intrusion into homeland communities. What happens to these Uncle Toms for taking the side of the antagonist is interesting as well.
The Uncle Toms of kung fu movies often meet the same end as the antagonists, a crippling defeat at the hands of the very culture they turned their backs on. Sometimes they’re killed along with their owners. Other times, if they don’t die, they’re seldom welcomed back to the community they betrayed. On the off-chance they are allowed to come back, it isn’t with ease and their reputation is permanently tarnished.
I feel that, within the Black Community, these sorts of betrayals are treated similarly (minus the violence). Were Clarence Thomas to renounce the entirety of his political stances and campaign HEAVY for the Black Lives Matter movement ‘til the end of his days, he would get the permanent side-eye for every single second of those days.
I won’t propose a conclusion on how to deal with cultural traitors, or those who denigrate their own people for hollow praise and cheap rewards. However, I think it does draw forth some important questions about Black people who chastise their community to a White audience. Particularly those who do so in a public forum and receive rewards–praise, airtime, money–for doing so. Should we welcome them back if they are willing to reform, or should they remain ostracized with the masters for whom they so comfortably sing the tune of Black condemnation? Should we take them down too, or are they even worth the time? Whatever the answer, I think we can all agree no one likes an Uncle Tom.
Square Up, Dog, I Swear…
What may be the strongest parallel between this film genre and the Black experience is that of resistance. Many of these films depict a person or group of people marginalized and depressed like a coiled spring. At some point, the spring pushes back–this is inevitable and inescapable. In kung fu films, there is always a person that rises to challenge the oppression. They then put their body and life on the line to stand up for their ideals.
Wrapped up in this outward, physical resistance is an inward look into the protagonist’s fundamental attributes and/or their culture as a source of limitless strength. If the character does not have the skills to fight, they go through intense, traditional martial arts training, detaching from their past self to develop a new personhood. During their training, they deconstruct themselves down to the fundamentals, both sharpening their character just as they sharpen their body. Now, with both their new physical skills and re-centered character steeped in cultural martial arts traditions, they’re properly equipped to take on the antagonist and anyone thereafter (The 36 Chambers Of Shaolin).
If the character is a master of a fighting style or highly skilled already, they must rely on their training and sense of self acquired prior. In these cases, the protagonist pursues the villain, and while on the journey is led astray or distracted–by the villain’s plot, by another character, by themselves, etc. After the “all is lost” moment, where the protagonist is in danger of not succeeding, the character doubles down on their values, reaches deep within themselves using the purity of their skills to save and redeem their culture (Legend of Drunken Master).
With or without fighting skills, the end result is the same: the intrinsic values of one’s culture are a limitless source of strength and knowledge. These tools become invaluable when fighting those oppressing you. Latent within each person is the power to rise up against those who antagonize and terrorize you and your people. Some have uncovered that power already, while others need some training, eventually able to join the fight, regardless.
Looking inward for the latent beauty, the latent ability, the latent power of the those descended from enslaved Africans, then exerting that energy outward to revolt against silencing and oppression is the hallmark of the social movements of Black Americans, particularly the ones of the 60’s and 70’s. What better time could there be for kung fu action cinema to break through to the urban areas of the United States?
What’s more, is that the fight of an individual extends beyond that singular life. The fight of the protagonist is a fight for something greater than themselves. It is a physical rebellion against the ideals of the oppressor. To die in pursuit of justice for all the people the protagonist represents would be an honor.
The resilience and strength of soul required to risk your life for the sake of change you may never experience are trademark attributes for the perfect Civil Rights activist. Like the martial arts hero, an activist must make peace with dying in service of their cause, detaching from interests of self. The survival of the movement, the chance for others to thrive in an era of peace ushered in after victory is a cause worthy of the ultimate sacrifice.
So What, Bruh?
What does this all mean? What does it have to do with the price of tea in China? What does it have to do with Melvin sittin’ at home without a job?
I’m writing this in the interest of cultural solidarity and reciprocal empowerment. Two cultures that seem worlds apart may have more in common than meets the eye (or more than some would like to recognize). I also believe that finding common ground can become the foundation for greater understanding and cooperation between two peoples. It nurtures new allies against oppression in general, which we know has a universal function, regardless of the time or target.
I am aware of the racial discrimination Black people face in many Asian nations, China included. In terms of media portrayals abroad, Black people get characterized much like we do at home in the United States–goons, thugs, coons, killers. (THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE)
Here, Asian Americans are often stereotyped, too–the men emasculated, one-dimensional nerds and servants, and women silent, exotic objects (just to name a few). So, in the interest of creating conversation, I write this, in part, to build a space to commune and exchange on how we can relate beyond the stereotypes and deceptive cinematic portrayals. We have the power to change the narrative, creating new stories that portray our cultures with all the boundless complexity they contain.
Furthermore, I write this for my people who feel their eclectic media tastes alienate them rather than bring them closer to others. These days, being a martial arts cinema fan can often translate into being a nerd, or geek, or dork, or whatever term people use to codify and denigrate us fans. Multiply that by Blackness and you have an invisible community of people who don’t feel connected by the intersection of both of these worlds. For my Black community, for my nerd, and for my Black nerd community, I do this to bear witness to our love for the genre, and maybe add to the conversation, demystifying our all too logical love for the martial arts and the movies that personify their glory.
For more thoughts on these matters, take a look at these sources: