Identification and appropriation (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 4)
Bruce Lee went around the San Francisco Bay Area shooting his mouth off. He said his kung fu was the best, and challenged local practitioners to prove him wrong. Wong Jia Man defeated the braggart, but declined to injure him in doing so. This failed to shut Lee up, and his oft-repeated version of events runs thus:
I’d gotten into a fight in San Francisco with a Kung-Fu cat, and after a brief encounter the son-of-a-bitch started to run.
There’s a video I’ve seen but have been unable to locate that shows this interview or one where he says substantially the same thing—it was well rehearsed, and probably carefully scripted as well, since there are several variants I was able to locate. Personally, even apart from the fact that it’s pure fabrication and false bravado, the appropriated language is what struck me. Lee’s manner and dress in the interview are also signals to his audience that he’s a major dude.
The video I recall has Lee wearing absurdly flaring bellbottom pants, a suede jacket, and a shiny print shirt, these last two items with extremely wide collars. The video is in black and white, but the jacket has to be orange, the shirt black, and the pants some other garish color. You can find many pictures of Lee dressed with similar early-’70s flair: he’s with it, he’s far out, he’s real groovy. In a 1971 interview, Lee says:¹
[U]nder the sky, under the heaven, man, there is but one family. It just so happen, man, that people are different.
In his first screen test, Lee verges on nerdy in dress and manner, with no sign of the “cat”s, “man”s, and “baby”s that would come to flavor his speech. So why the abrupt shift? Marketing and demographics.
In the especially hagiographic biopic, I Am Bruce Lee, director/ producer and sometime writer of Black Panther comics, Reginald Hudlin says of him:²
He’s got swagger. We [i.e. black audiences] love his style. He had style the way Muhammad Ali had style in the ring.
It’s no accident that Hudlin makes the connection between Ali and Lee. The folklore has it that John Saxon remarked on all the Ali films that Lee possessed and obsessively viewed during the filming of Enter the Dragon and asked him why. Lee reportedly told him he would fight Ali one day. It is clear that this was mere bluster. Instead, Lee was both studying Ali’s moves, as we shall see, as well as this badass African American’s way of presenting himself.
But why? As I’ve already discussed, the martial arts craze had been sweeping the US for some time when Lee jumped on the bandwagon. The return of soldiers from Korea and Vietnam was one of the main motivating factors. One such person was former marine, Steve Sanders, who took the name Steve Muhammad upon converting to Islam. He summed up the experience thus:³
I didn’t enjoy being over there. Anybody who says he did is either a nut who enjoys seeing people killed or a liar. I really don’t know why I was there in the first place. I didn’t hate the North Vietnamese or the VCs. They looked the same as the South Vietnamese who we were supposed to be helping. How can you like one and hate the other? As far as I’m concerned, those people just want to be left alone to do their own thing.
This was a common sentiment: minorities were disproportionately drafted for the war, and found themselves fighting other people of color on behalf of the white power structure in the US and their abusive and corrupt puppet regime in Saigon.
Muhammad studied karate in Okinawa during his service as well, and went on to co-found the Black Karate Federation, as well as playing a minor part in Enter the Dragon as Williams’ instructor. Williams (Jim Kelly) seemed based on Muhammad—a Vietnam vet who identifies with the downtrodden and seeks justice.
Another factor was white flight from urban centers, which, together with the rise of television, left theaters needing to reduce costs and find new audiences. The Hong Kong film industry provided a cheap product in the form of dubbed martial arts films which had already proved successful in Chinatowns across the nation, and so simply spread to other inner city venues. This was the time of the grindhouse kung fu palace, where I too spent time.
Certainly, the action was a factor. Warrington Hudlin, producer and Reginald’s brother, relates of his childhood:⁴
We’d go and watch films all day. The whole time we’d be going, “Oh man, how’d they do that?” Because it happened so fast, you’d have to screen a film three or four times to get the technique. So we’d be like, “Okay, man, you watch his feet, I’ll watch his hands, and we’ll compare notes in the lobby.” Me and my friends, we used to live in those theaters.
Spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation were other attempts to deal with the new financial and demographic realities of the urban theater, and while they also contained a decent amount of action, the latter could not compete in terms of cost or speed to produce, the former didn’t offer nonwhite heroes. Kung fu films often featured a lone underdog of color combating villainous forces of greater economic power, and so hit home in black America. Reginald Hudlin makes a hyperbolic statement on how Lee fit into this countercultural matrix:⁵
You had Muhammad Ali, you had Malcolm X, you had the Black Panthers, you had a lot of radicalism going on—Bruce Lee represented that same kind of radicalism.
Hong Kong film detected this success and began leaning into it well before Lee arrived on the scene. Initially, the Japanese were typically targeted as the villains of these movies, with their role in WWII still a relatively fresh memory on both sides of the Pacific. Hong Kong superstar Jimmy Wang Yu (王羽), who was eventually to be supplanted by Lee, paradoxically worked frequently with Japanese filmmakers in making films that expressed over-the-top hatred towards their own countrymen. In particular, the 1970 film that made Wang the king of the kung fu film, The Chinese Boxer (《龙虎斗》) was practically a dress rehearsal for Lee’s Fist of Fury (《精武門》) two years later. Their plots are interchangeable: Japanese karate goons beat up Chinese people in a kung fu school; one student takes revenge.
Returning to Lee, his Hollywood career had not gone well. The Green Hornet was canceled after the single 1966–67 season, failing to find the success of its contemporary Batman, and he was reduced to taking bit parts and action director (i.e. fight choreographer) roles. There were also some projects he tried to pitch, notably The Warrior, which the Lee faction claims was what later became Kung Fu, though there is only circumstantial evidence for this. Of the project, Lee said in an interview:⁶
Can you dig that? All these cowboys on horses with guns and me with a long, green hunk of bamboo, right? Far out.
In 1971, he took a role in a Hong Kong production called The Big Boss (《唐山大兄》), flying from LA to the filming location in Thailand. Linda Lee Cadwell claims Lee had secured creative control on the picture, and he himself claimed to have done some script rewrites on it, but it’s clear that the director had him do things he was not comfortable with, he did not choreograph the fight scenes, and he was not even supposed to have had the lead role: a last-minute change of directors led to this last-minute shift from the veteran actor James Tien-chun (田俊) to Lee in his first Hong Kong film.
The film was a smash hit, raking in a record-breaking HK$3.2M (just over US$500,000) over an only 15-day run, and going on to have massive showings worldwide as well. In an interview from the time, Lee said of it:⁷
We knew from the outset that the film was going to be a success, but I have to admit we weren’t really expecting it to be that successful.
It was the break Lee had been looking for since 1964 when he had been reminded by Wong Jia Man that he wasn’t a martial artist at all, and was really trying to be discovered by Hollywood. He also had a unique qualification compared to the other Hong Kong stars of the day: he was in touch with the American viewing public. Lee’s collaborators knew he was connected to the American kung fu craze and understood the black community’s affinity for martial arts cinema. Certainly he had had several African-American students, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and one of his earliest, James Glover, who said of those days:⁸
He’s seeing working class folks, he’s seeing people of color and that’s shaping his idea of who he should become. […] I helped him with […] just how to act on the street, how to read people and things like that. Attitudes and what was cool behavior and what wasn’t cool behavior.
If anything, Lee had problems fitting in as Chinese—he did not speak Mandarin, and admitted:⁹
There were some scenes in The Big Boss where I really didn’t think I was being Chinese enough. […] You really have to do a lot of adjusting.
In 1972’s The Way of the Dragon (《猛龍過江》), which was produced and directed by Lee, the typical ghetto myth is portrayed, but his fight with Colt (Chuck Norris) is pivotal. Initially Colt is getting the better of Tang (Lee), who then decides to adjust his tactics: he starts to bounce—something that’s not a part of traditional kung fu—dancing around his bewildered opponent. The reference is clearly to Ali’s “float like a butterfly” footwork, which he would use to remain mobile and unpredictable in the ring, tiring out his opponents. Of the moment Tang defeats Colt, Reginald Hudlin says:¹⁰
So when he fought Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee represented the entire Third World; he represented all people of color fighting the Western oppressor. […] I can tell you at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, which was 100% all black, we cheered for him.
Ultimately, Lee was simply the best tool in the Hong Kong cinema industry’s shed for selling the ghetto myths they had already been engaged with to a black urban US audience. Bill Brown, a professor specializing in American culture, found:¹¹
While his films theatricalize racial and national conflict—exhibiting Lee in combat with Russian, black American, and, most often, Japanese opponents—Lee’s success, including the extraordinary success in Japan, has been attributed to the simplicity with which his films villainize the capitalist; heroize the worker (particularized as the Hong Kong laborer); locate the power to defeat oppression in the body; and insist on a lawless, violent resolution to class conflict.
Cultural appropriation is so clearly at work here that it’s perhaps not worth remarking on, but I did catch Killer Mike’s rather sensible take on the topic vis-à-vis Elvis Presley:¹²
If you’re gonna do our music—if you’re gonna, say for instance, do hip-hop or rock or blues—when the people who create that—the culture who creates that—when our ass is on the line, step up and be there.
There’s no section in Lee’s Wikipedia page describing his charitable works or activism, and even Reginald Hudlin, I think, meant Lee represented activism in his films, rather than anywhere else. And, as Mickey Rourke noted of him in I Am Bruce Lee:¹³
He was like the Elvis of martial arts.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- The Pierre Berton Show, December, 1971.
- Jon Shirota, “I’m Not a Militant: Equal Opportunity Sensei”, Black Belt Magazine, 1973.
- Jeff Yang, “Black belt jonesing: American martial arts culture’s roots in the black community”, SF Gate, 2009.
- I Am Bruce Lee, 2021.
- Daniel Moss, “Bruce Lee: the big boss and the $3 million man”, South China Morning Post, 1971.
- Be Water, 2020.
- Moss, 1971.
- I Am Bruce Lee, 2021.
- Bill Brown, “Global Bodies/Postnationalities: Charles Johnson’s Consumer Culture”, Representations, 1997.
- Season 16, Episode 15, Real Time with Bill Maher, May, 2018.
- I Am Bruce Lee, 2021.