(tape clatters) (static zapping) - Have you ever seen this iconic film from the 70s?
(static hissing) (tense foreboding music) Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in "Game of Death."
(men grunting) (fists thudding) (men yelling) This was part of a wave of Blaxploitation meets Kung Fu films.
(funky upbeat music) (man grunts) (man grunts) (feet shuffling) (man yells) (men groaning) (fist thuds) Oo!
(gentle music) But there was something more than big hair and butt kicking going on in these movies.
From "Shaft," to "Game of Death," to "Luke Cage".
Let's get a historian's take on why these two genres of film intersected in the 70s and how black Kung Fu lives on, starting with Blaxploitation.
(gentle music) (static hisses) - The mob wanted Harlem back.
They got Shaft.
(woman gasps) (woman screams) (tense dramatic music) - Blaxploitation films were originally from the 1970s.
These films were low budget films.
They had really stylized aesthetics.
They were movies for the Black community.
They were usually made by Black people for Black people.
The fashion is a key part of these movies, but really the heart of the movies are these male characters who are fighting the system, fighting the man from below, and trying to engage in vigilante justice.
- And it looks like over 200 Blaxploitation films were made in the 70s.
(static hisses) What about marital arts films then?
How did they get into the mix?
(static hisses) - From across the Pacific, film studios like the Shaw Brothers began to distribute move movies on mass to the United States, particularly Hong Kong Kong Fu movies.
We start seeing the emergence of martial arts movies that take on a particular theme, which is to overthrow Japanese imperialism by everyday people, much like blaxploitation films.
(film rattles) (gentle upbeat music) "Five Fingers of Death" was the first Shaw Brothers film to get a real U.S. release.
By May of 1973, three Kung Fu films took the top spots at the Box office.
- With the release of movies like Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon," there was a sort of melding between the themes of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies and blaxploitation movies.
And Black filmmakers were particularly inspired by Hong Kong movies and began to incorporate things like fight choreography, some of the same themes, standing up to the man and using martial arts to do so.
- Which brings us back to that iconic scene we saw at the beginning of this video from "Game of Death," a movie that debuted in the U.S. in 1979.
(air whistling) (man grunting) (fist thuds) (man groans) (tense foreboding music) (man yells) - "Game of Death" is such a brilliant idea.
And when Bruce Lee's character gets to the top, he has to face this giant in Kareem who's rocking the dark aviators.
For a person that's into 70s pop culture that's as good as it gets.
It's just classic.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the greatest, if not the greatest NBA player in the 1970s.
And of course, the great Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee was ass kicker.
He was not another White male hero.
He wasn't Black, but he wasn't White.
Something like this resonates a lot with Black audiences in the 70s.
Oh, there's a real affinity between blaxploitation audiences and Kung Fu film audiences.
(gentle music) - Kung Fu from Hong Kong took pop culture by storm.
In 1974, we get this iconic Kung Fu song.
♪ Everybody was Kung Fu fighting ♪ ♪ Those kicks were fast as lighting ♪ - Groovy fashion and Kung Fu fighting aside, what was going on off screen that made the storyline of fighting the man so appealing?
(gentle music) (static hisses) - It is the first decade after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act.
And it is a time when you can start to see broad expression of Black culture in ways that had not existed before.
- We also see sort of a wave of death.
We see this rapid succession of assassinations of heroes of the Black community, the assassination of Medgar Evers, of Martin Luther king Jr., of Malcolm X.
There's a desire for justice and a sense that justice has been deferred.
And so people are starting to look to sort of narratives and frame works of self-defense in order to think about their future and collective liberation for Black people.
(upbeat funky music) - The Black Power movement was very influential on these films.
A lot of narratives about going against the system, getting back at the man.
- Even though the Black Panther Party emerges in 1966, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, they actually became even more visible in the 1970s as they stage protests and demonstrations around the world and across the country.
They were also really invested in the idea that there was solidarity between Black people and all oppressed people worldwide.
So Seale and Newton, they were students of international politics.
They were thinking about things like the Vietnam War.
- And particularly the late part of the Vietnam War, where it was increasingly unpopular, Black audiences and other audiences of color were beginning to be exposed not just to the plight of U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia, but also global ideas of how to resist American imperialism - America Black people are treated very much as the Vietnamese people.
- These anti Vietnam War protests begin to really meld with 1970s iterations of the civil rights movement.
So on college campuses, students were protesting both domestic racism and domestic classism, but also imperialism abroad.
And so these politics really set the stage for the birth of this crossover between Kung Fu movies and blaxploitation films.
(gentle music) - So what happened to blaxploitation films after the 70s?
(static hisses) - One of the most vocal critics of blaxploitation films was actually the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
And so I think these blaxploitation films, which largely centered on stereotypes of particularly Black men being erratic, hypersexual, violent, dope smoking, drinking, it didn't really align with the vision of the NAACP at that moment when they're trying to put forward an image of blackness that is not only worthy of respect, but also dignified.
- I think the real impact of blaxploitation films can be measured once you get out of the 70s.
In the late 1980s, with the emergence of what would be known as gangster rap, you find a lot of rappers quoting from blaxploitation movies, sampling blaxploitation movies (upbeat funky music) ♪ Who's the man ♪ ♪ Is it some brother in a thick hat thinking ♪ - And then in an 1990s, you get a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, who becomes hugely popular, appropriating from blaxploitation movies, martial arts movies, appropriating for movies that a lot of people had dismissed, but because Tarantino will have such a prominent mainstream successful career, the references that he made to blaxploitation, introduces these movies to new audiences that had no idea that they existed.
- So do we see traces of Black Kung Fu today?
(static hisses) (gentle music) - We see a resurgence of this style of sort of vigilante justice, or justice from below in these new Marvel movies or in these new superhero movies, and it's really similar to what was being promoted in blaxploitation movies.
- And you still can't speak English.
- My English is just fine!
- There's this one scene where Luke Cage walks in and he protects Asian store owners.
- Unlike a tomb.
- Excuse me?
(tense suspenseful music) - So I think it's really interesting, the aesthetics and the sort of narrative of this scene in "Luke Cage," because, you know, here he is, he's an everyday guy.
He's fighting these sort of villainous characters who are lining up to him.
And even in that sort of way, they surround him and attack him one by one.
that's classic Black Kung Fu movie.
(upbeat funky music) (man groans) (object clatter) (man grunts) But it's also just the narrative that he's defending these Chinese restaurant owners.
- You have my word ma'am.
(upbeat funky music) I've got you.
- I read that is incredibly meaningful in both the movements of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate.
- In the same way that we see that wave of death from the 1960s, these assassinations of heroes, now we're seeing this sort of wave of death and assassinations of everyday Black citizens.
And on top of that, we're also seeing movements emerging, like Stop Asian Hate, to counteract these rises in hate crimes against Asian American communities.
And when people feel frustrated, when they feel as if justice hasn't been served, that's when we start to see sort of the appeal of a hero, someone who rises up from amongst the people and fights injustice and does the right thing.
(men grunt) (fists thud) (man groans) (fists thud) (feet shuffling) - There are various possibilities that shows like this offer where we can imagine what safety and genuine security looks like, where communities of color protect other communities and vulnerable communities for the promise of mutual safety, not at the expense of the other community's life.
(gentle music) - Hey Originats, thanks for watching "Historians Take" and for coming back to the "Origin of Everything" channel.
We have a lot of new plans in store for the "PBS Origin History" channel.
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