In the 1970s, Kung Fu movies took America by storm and Bruce Lee became a household name. Lee turned into an unexpected icon for African-American audiences, and his image especially resonated with black males.
When Bruce Lee came to fame, he was the rare non-white, leading actor. And similar to Blaxploitation movies, Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu films were revenge fantasies where an outsider challenges the establishment.
“Bruce Lee consistently plays someone who defends the weaker against the stronger forces,” said Crystal Anderson, associate professor of English at Elon University, in an interview on The State of Things.
Anderson’s new book, “Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production” (University Press of Mississippi, 2013), tracks Bruce Lee’s influence on pop culture.
Enter the Dragon was the only Bruce Lee film made by a major Hollywood studio. The director Robert Clouse had previously worked on Blaxploitation movies. He cast the African-American actor Jim Kelly, who played the role of Bruce Lee’s friend and fellow martial artist.
“The idea of pan-racial politics runs through these films, the idea of coalitions among groups of color in the United States,” said Anderson. “In the ‘70s, you did see black radical groups like the Black Panthers interact with Asian American radical groups like the Red Guard. So in the film, you’re seeing a reflection of those interracial radical politics,” said Anderson.
Since Bruce Lee rose to fame, Asian-American and African-American popular culture have continued to converge in film. Anderson’s book argues that recent movie franchises such as Rush Hour and the Matrix trilogy walked through the door opened by Kung Fu films of the 1970s.
“So here [with the Matrix] you have a trilogy of science fiction films where you have not just a lot of people of color, which is unusual in the science fiction genre, where you have these pairings of African Americans and Asians,” Anderson said.
“I like to call [characters such as Neo] vaguely Asian, because no one ever calls someone Chinese-American, Japanese-American in the films, but it’s so over determined with Asian culture—the use of Kung Fu, the sites of fights—that it’s in the air and in the imagination of the film,” she said.
According to Anderson, the African-American and Asian-American popular culture also converge outside of Hollywood film. They intersect in literature, manga, and pop music, such as the Korean rapper Psy.
The audio for this interview will be available at 10am on Wednesday, September 11.