Mark Jacobs takes a closer look into why Chinese martial arts are popular in the African-American community.

When I attended a screening of the documentary The Black Kungfu Experience at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image last year, I noticed the film pointed out something that many have observed over the years: There appears to have developed a social intersection of African-American and Chinese culture that finds its crossroads right in the middle of the kung fu world. How to explain such a juxtaposition of two disparate cultures? Noted New York kung fu practitioner and former BET reality-TV star Novell Bell, aka The Black Taoist, offered this insight: “Brothers just love kung fu. It’s the rhythm.” Potential stereotyping aside, there seems to be a level of agreement about the nature of kung fu movements from other prominent African-American practitioners. Legendary martial artist Ron Van Clief, who’s featured in The Black Kungfu Experience, is better-known to film fans as “The Black Dragon.” Drawing from his extensive experience in both Japanese and Chinese arts, Ron Van Clief opined that the harder Japanese styles are “ugly” compared to Chinese arts, which simply flow better.


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In all likelihood, the ethnic fusion of African-American and Chinese culture reached its zenith in 1985’s The Last Dragon. The movie follows the adventures of a black kung fu expert named “Bruce Leroy,” who spouts fortune-cookie philosophy while walking the streets of Harlem bedecked in a frog-buttoned kung fu jacket and huge wicker hat. Bruce Leroy has passed, in certain circles, from camp to cult status, and his style from The Last Dragon continues to be imitated. UFC fighter Alex Caceres likes to bill himself as “Bruce Leeroy,” after the Bruce Leroy character from The Last Dragon. And at the underground kung fu fights Bell stages around New York, you can see various African-American masters attired in their own kung fu jackets — and even the occasional wicker hat, as seen in The Last Dragon. Many attribute the ongoing fascination with the Chinese martial arts to the enduring power of cinema. Indeed, the roots of the African-American kung fu phenomenon stretch back before Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon — all the way to the 1970s, when Hong Kong chopsocky films drew crowds in practically every inner-city theater in America. “The theme in a lot of kung fu movies is about the underdog fighting against the oppressors,” said Martha Burr, who, along with Mei-Juin Chen, produced and directed The Black Kungfu Experience. “And that resonates in the black community.”

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While the underdog theme may have drawn African-American audiences to the theater, it was undoubtedly the way Chinese masters kicked butt on the silver screen that pulled them into the kung fu schools. Cinematic masters didn’t just kick butt; they kicked it with style. This, as much as anything, may explain the allure of Chinese martial arts. “Both cultures have a shared emphasis on style,” said Warrington Hudlin, a filmmaker and a trustee of the Museum of the Moving Image. “It’s a decorated, ornamented, performed experience. Think about those movies and the way guys came out posing. You don’t really fight in those poses — it’s a stylized version of the art, and that’s very much a shared aesthetic. But that shared aesthetic goes both ways: I remember Bruce Lee wearing a blue dashiki in the TV show Longstreet." Despite any shared aesthetics, for some early African-American enthusiasts, the Chinese martial arts community was unwelcoming at times. Noted praying mantis kung fu instructor Ralph Mitchell once recalled in Black Belt how it took him several months to gain entry into a Chinatown kung fu school in the 1960s. Tayari Casel, another martial artist featured in The Black Kungfu Experience, remembered having his kung fu belittled by a Chinese master at a tournament because Tayari Casel didn’t know the Chinese names of the techniques he was performing. Nevertheless, in a time when many traditional martial arts are experiencing slowed growth because of the rise of mixed martial arts, interest in kung fu — at least in the African-American community — remains high. “There are still a lot of African-American kids doing kung fu now, and I think that’s because they’re able to study with these pioneering black masters,” Martha Burr said. “But in a way, it’s really an American martial art now. I think black people took Chinese culture and Americanized it. It’s not a black cultural thing; it’s become an American cultural thing.”

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