Why so many black people love kung fu

This is Bruce Lee getting his arse kicked
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yes, the basketballer. Known for his hook shots, not really his fighting skills. But this is actually a stroke of movie casting genius because when Game of Death was made in 1973, Abdul-Jabbar was at the peak of his powers in the NBA. He was a huge star and he was also a friend and martial arts student of Bruce Lee. What the makers of this film had hit upon was that kung fu like basketball, was, and is, massively popular with black audiences. And you might have already noticed this, because kung fu references have been prevalent in black culture for almost half a century. And I’m not just talking about the US. I also spent my teens idolising Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly. So what is it about kung fu films that speaks
so strongly to black people? This is the iconic start of a Shaw Brothers production, the company responsible for some of the biggest titles in Hong Kong cinema history. It’s the beginning of Five Fingers of Death, the first kung fu film to get a proper
US release in March 1973. And along with The Hammer of God also known as
the Chinese boxer, which came out a few months later,
it blew open the US market. Through that summer and autumn,
many more films came out. In fact, around 30 kung fu films
were released in the US in 1973 alone. Among them were some of Bruce Lee’s most celebrated films: The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. They were mostly released in New York at the budget, grindhouse cinemas of 42nd street, because they were cheap, often running
back to back and on repeat. Attracted by the cheap tickets, many young black men and women found themselves in the cinemas, being introduced to these new, exciting, fast-paced films where the hero wasn’t a white guy. Apart from the brilliant Sidney Poitier, black heroes were almost non-existent in Hollywood. I mean of course there were blaxploitation films but they weren’t the best portrayal of blackness, because they played on negative black stereotypes. But the appeal wasn’t just about non-white heroes, because the themes and storylines
were also easy to identify with. In Fist of Fury, also known as the Chinese Connection, the hero faces discrimination by a gang
of Japanese karate thugs, who are intent on persecuting him, his friends
and his martial arts school. Set in 1940 Shanghai, the film reflects real tensions
from Japan’s colonial presence in China. And this was a regular storyline. Both Five Fingers of Death and the Hammer of God feature gangs of those pesky Japanese karate thugs who eventually get their comeuppance. Resistance and vengeance against oppression
were common themes, as well as self-improvement, determination
and defiance in the face of injustice. All this resonated with black audiences. After all, the black power movement was in full force. Standing up for your rights and fighting back
was a powerful message. 1973 culminated with the big blockbuster release of Enter the Dragon which saw Bruce Lee starring
alongside blaxpoitation star Jim Kelly. It was a massive box office hit. And this had a beneficial effect
on the questionable blaxploitation films. They started to incorporate ideas of black heroism
in a much more positive way. And all these new heroes could do martial arts. Only a year after Five Fingers of Death
had hit the US shores, kung fu films were making their mark on black culture. The impact would run deep,
inspiring a younger generation, who weren’t allowed to go and see
those late-night cinema screens. The 80s saw a second wave of releases
across the US on syndicated television. All this set the scene for the 90s, when kung fu’s influence on blackness produced some truly outstanding pieces of cultural history. Possibly the most obvious example
is the Wu-Tang Clan. RZA and his two cousins were regulars
at the 42nd street cinemas. One night RZA and ODB ducked into a late showing in the early hours of the morning. The film was Shaolin vs Wu Tang. And after it finished, they stayed
to watch the whole film again. To this day, it remains RZA’s favourite film. RZA noticed parallels with his own life. Kung fu battles were a lot like rap battles, about honour and reputation, “my style is better than your style…” He thought of the tongue like a weapon, a sword,
and spitting bars like landing blows. What better way to define his crew who were trying to make a name for themselves in hip hop? But beyond the Wu, the 90s and naughties gave us a whole new cast of arse-kicking black heroes. There are loads of examples of this
so tell us who we’ve missed out in the comments. And more recently there’s Master Kisu, who was the chief martial arts director and consultant for the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. And Rich and Tone Taluega,
they were influenced heavily by kung fu in their dance coreography for The Get Down. And then there’s Kung Fu Kenny. We first saw him fighting Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, and now he’s been reincarnated
as Kendrick Lemar’s alter ego. For me, kung fu and martial arts films reflected the kind of power and agency I wished I’d had. It was like imagining you
could turn the tables on society, rise up and fight for what’s right. and what’s more, a lot of the heroes
in these films looked like me. These messages of self-improvement, community, loyalty and resistance is what attracted so many fans
within black communities. And it’s left us with a legacy of some of our
most treasured cultural expressions. There’s so much I didn’t have time to talk about
but I put my sources and further reading in the description if you’re interested. I also want to shout out to Eric Eddings
from The Nod podcast who did a brilliant interview with RZA
about the origins of Wu-Tang. There’s a link for that too,
but finally I want to hear from you guys. What do you think about black audiences’
homage to kung fu? Thanks for watching.
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